by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Alan J. Pakula
CAST: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 78% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Sophie, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, has found a reason to live with Nathan, a sparkling if unsteady American Jew obsessed with the Holocaust.

I have not seen a movie as stirring, as affecting, or as emotionally shattering as Sophie’s Choice in a very long time.  For years, I was aware of the film’s cachet and of Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance, but the opportunity to watch the movie never presented itself until very recently.  I was intellectually aware of the slang usage of having to make a “Sophie’s choice”, meaning that one had to choose between two equally undesirable options.  I knew it had to do with the movie of the same name, but I had no other context.  And for decades, the real context of Sophie’s choice had remained unknown to me until now.

That fact is one of the reasons Sophie’s Choice had such a devastating impact on me.  The screenplay is another, and naturally, there’s Streep’s landmark performance.

The story opens with an older man’s narration while we watch his younger self onscreen.  This is Stingo, played as a young man by Peter MacNicol.  He’s an aspiring author, and he’s just moved into a large pink boarding house in a Brooklyn suburb shortly after the end of World War II.  On his first day there, he encounters the two people who will irrevocably change his life, Sophie (Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline in his film debut).  They appear to be a couple, but they are in the middle of a brutal verbal argument on the stairs, with Nathan yelling awful things to Sophie, calling her a Polack, saying how much he doesn’t need her.  He leaves in a huff, Sophie is in tears, Stingo instinctively goes to comfort her, they get to talking, and the next morning Nathan returns, utterly contrite, at first suspicious of Stingo, but when Sophie assures him Stingo is just a friend, Nathan is all charm and goodwill and has nothing but good things to say about Sophie.

At this point, in my head, I had the movie all planned out.  Okay, so we’ve got a love triangle with a writer/narrator coming between an unattainable beauty and the capricious brute who loves her.  And this, I imagined, is what Sophie’s choice would eventually come down to: the penniless aspiring writer who is “safe” or the roguish charmer with the turn-on-a-dime temper.  Ho hum, been there, done that, I thought, but wow, is Meryl Streep’s Polish accent spot-on or WHAT?  Guess I’ll keep watching just so I can say I watched it.

That’s the ingenuity of the screenplay I mentioned earlier.  It strings you along for close to an hour, making you believe it’s about the romantic relationship among the three leads.  And then the movie springs one of the greatest head-fakes in film history.  What started as a soapy melodrama becomes a character study of the limits of human endurance, with scenes as fraught with tension as anything written by Hitchcock or Tarantino.

(I am going to have to write very carefully from here on out because I want to convey how effective the movie is while preserving its revelations.  It worked so well for me precisely because I knew very little about the plot, and I want to make sure you have the same experience, dear reader.)

Any appreciation of Sophie’s Choice must include a discussion of Meryl Streep’s performance as the title character.  She reportedly begged director Alan J. Pakula for this role, even after he had lined up a Polish actress for the part.  We can all thank the cinema gods Pakula went with Streep instead.  This is, without a doubt, one of the top three or four performances I’ve ever seen by any actor, living or dead.  Even leaving aside her mastery of the Polish accent…well, actually, let’s talk about that for a second.  She learned to speak with a flawless Polish accent.  Then there are scenes where she had to speak fluent Polish, so she learned Polish.  Then there are scenes where Sophie also speaks German, so she learned how to speak fluent German with a Polish accent.  I mean…it took me two weeks to learn two sentences in French and say them fluently.  If there were a fan-fiction theory that Streep is really a magical drama teacher at Hogwarts, I’d believe it.

At times during Sophie’s Choice, Pakula’s camera simply stops and stares at Streep while she delivers a monologue about her days before the war, or about how she survived as a personal secretary to the chief commandant of Auschwitz.  Her delivery during these scenes feels about as naturalistic as you can get.  You don’t feel like you’re watching an actress give a performance anymore.  It’s more like you’re watching a documentary about a Holocaust survivor.  It’s a performance that simply must be seen to be believed.

Next to Streep, Kevin Kline as her beau, Nathan, is almost overdone, stagey, far too full of ebullience and rage and earnestness.  Nathan is Jewish, and he is obsessed with the idea of tracking down the Nazis who escaped justice after the war.  However, his antics are balanced by Sophie’s serenity and unconditional forgiveness.  I look at it as a yin/yang kind of thing.  It works.

There are questions, though, about their relationship, especially as the movie wraps up.  Why does Sophie put up with this lout who whispers sweet nothings to her and impulsively proposes marriage in one moment, and in another moment is given to vicious accusations of infidelity and collaboration with the Nazis, then swings back again in a fit of contrition?  Perhaps she was wracked with survivor’s guilt.  Her parents, husband, and children never emerged from the concentration camps.  Perhaps she felt it was her duty somehow to prop someone up and latch on to a soul like Nathan, someone whose outward cheerfulness masked internal demons.  Perhaps being a helpmate for such a person keeps her own demons at bay.  Just a thought.

When I’m watching a movie on my own, I can measure how effective it is by how many times I talk to myself or yell at the screen while it’s playing.  With Sophie’s Choice, I didn’t do a lot of yelling until it performed its head-fake and veered into territories not even hinted at previously.  After that, there was a lot of my Gods and holy craps and oh Jesus-es.  The end of the movie is a roller-coaster that may not end in the happiest place ever, but it’s the kind of earned emotional catharsis that doesn’t happen very often at the movies.  A movie like this is a treasure.  I hope, if you’ve never seen it, you’ll make it a point to hunt down a copy and see for yourself what all the fuss is about.

And don’t let anyone spoil it for you.


By Marc S. Sanders

The original Poltergeist holds together based only upon its visual imagination.  The characters?  Well, they’re pretty thin to me. 

The Freeling family are JoBeth Williams and Craig T Nelson as mom and dad, with a teen daughter (Dominique Dunne), a preteen son (Oliver Robins) and an angelic five-year-old girl named Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) who speaks to the “tv people” through the white noise channel in the middle of the night.  Following odd occurrences that include unexplainable trickery from the kitchen chairs, a monstrous oak tree comes alive during a violent thunderstorm ready to consume the boy, while little Carol Anne is abducted by her closet into another realm that “exists” somewhere within the suburban house.

Mom and dad recruit help from ghost whisperers to uncover the mysteries that reside in the home and hope to rescue Carol Anne.  Beatrice Straight is the leading scientist of this team.  She introduces dialogue that says their home might be not be so much haunted as it is consumed by a “poltergeist.”  That little nugget to ponder stops there though, and is never explored further.   Who cares, actually?  Poltergeist!  Haunting!  Tomato! TomAto!  The piano is still moving by itself, and the toys are still floating around the children’s room.  Since the unexplainable can never be explained, a psychic is brought in, perfectly played by Zelda Rubinstein as a withered old lady with a kinship for the supernatural.  She knows how mom and dad should direct Carol Anne back to their dimension, and has a pretty good idea how they need to enter the other realm and physically rescue her.

Watching Tobe Hooper’s classic haunted house film from 1982 (rumored to primarily be directed by producer/writer Steven Spielberg), almost feels like I’m touring a warehouse of monster creations at a movie studio with all the lights turned on.  Most of the inventions offer little depth or curiosity.  I could care less about any of the characters like the parents and three kids that make up the Freeling family, or the squat psychic who enters the second half of the picture.  Beatrice Straight is an interesting actress with a humorous shiver and terrified whisper.  She leads two ghost hunter assistants who lack the speak to talk with researched authority.  I run down this list though, and all I get from the movie is an arts and crafts display of the dazzling and grotesque creations spawned from the imaginations of Industrial Light and Magic.  The artistry is to be admired.  Yet, I question if anything I saw ever served a story. 

I don’t watch Poltergeist as often as others I know, simply to avoid experiencing the terrorizing clown puppet that dons a wicked tooth like expression and strangles the young boy.  Still very effective.  Coffins burst from the muddy swimming pool to pour out skeletons upon a screaming JoBeth Williams.  A ghostly white phantom guards the door to the children’s room and the closet entrance becomes a gaping, hellish monster mouth ready to swallow what it inhales.  Raw meat crawls across the kitchen counter.  A chicken leg turns into maggots and let’s not forget about the guy who hallucinates in front of mirror while pealing the skin off his face.  These are just lists!  Lists of scary things to do.   

Poltergeist is a simplistic fun house of haunts.  Nothing further.  I appreciate that only to a degree, however.  I wanted more.  An explanation is given for these occurrences in a tiny exchange of dialogue during the terrifying climax.  Beyond that, there is nothing I can say about these characters or what they stand for.  The kids toss cereal at each other at the breakfast table, and the parents smoke pot in bed, but there’s really no affection, or conversely, animosity shared among the family members.

If I were to compare Poltergeist to other fright fests like Hitchcock’s The Birds or even the original Predator or Alien, I would undoubtedly say those are superior films because beyond the monsters that terrorize the characters there’s also room for mistrust and paranoia among the players.  There’s time to devote towards care that those characters may have for one another.  A suburban mom is seemingly expected to want to be reunited with her little girl.  That’s a give in.  It’s standard.  Completely apparent in every way.  Couldn’t some competition from mom and dad come into play though?  Some blame pointing tossed about for example?

I guess I get a little bored with Poltergeist because it doesn’t stop to acknowledge the value of its cast of characters.  There are only a few moments of suspense that come upon me like when I’m trying to figure out where the scary clown puppet went off to.  Another terrifying moment is watching JoBeth Williams hustle as fast as she can to her children’s room while the hallway seems to stretch the bedroom door further and further away from her.  These are all things to look at though.  These are not moments that I connect with emotionally.

Some close friends of mine absolutely love this movie.  They can’t get enough of it.  They recite the lines.  They get caught up in the supposed “Poltergeist Curse.”  They watch all of the making of documentaries and return to the film for the nostalgia.  For me though, I never felt an intimacy with the mystery, or the family being victimized.  On that level, it’s almost on the same plane as a disposable Jason or Freddy movie.  I’d like to shed at least one tear before that teen gets their head chopped off, or the screaming kid gets eaten by the tree trunk.


By Marc S. Sanders

I was not raised on video games.  My father refused to allow us to have them in the house. While I was envious of every kid that owned an Atari 2600, dad didn’t want us to get addicted to them.  I wouldn’t know until later on how thankful I was for that rule he stood by.  I like arcade games for a once and a while escape, but once I reach the banana board (which isn’t often) on Ms. Pac Man, I’ve had my fill.

I recall seeing at least a few scenes of Walt Disney Studios’ Tron back when it was released on VHS.  Way back then, just like now, I just was never so impressed by it.  I can forgive the thin characterizations of really the only 5-7 actors with speaking roles.  Yet, the visuals and sound really do nothing for me.  What am I looking at?  Grids!  Just grids or endless squares.  A blank chess board looks more exciting to me.  The players in the film are dressed in what are presumed to be digitized armor that have carved out glowing blue and red lights.  Their human faces are grainy grays.  It all seems so flat to me, like that awful Pac Man adaptation Atari developed for their game consoles. 

Jeff Bridges plays Flynn, a game software developer done dirty by a corporate conglomerate led by a man named Dillinger (David Warner, the bad guy with the British accent).  Dillinger, along with a super computer intelligence known as the Master Control Program, have stolen Flynn’s intellectual property for dynamic new video games.  Since that time, Flynn has been making efforts to hack into the computer system and steal back what was originally his to begin with.  Master Control Program always fends him off, though.

A side story involves Bruce Boxleitner as Flynn’s colleague, Alan, working for the corporation. Alan has just developed a new security system known as TRON.  Dillinger puts a stop on the TRON program however.  Flynn, Alan and a third colleague named Lora (Cindy Morgan) break into the corporate computer lab one night, and before you know it, while attempting to hack in, Flynn is zapped right into the computer system, where he finds himself ensconced in a series of gladiator like games that were part of his original program write ups.

Master Control Program has the capability to erase Flynn from existence but insists on having him compete in the games that involve frisbees that deflect lasers and drive colorful racing cycles.  All of these games occur on this boring grid.

The actors mentioned above are utilized in the film much like The Wizard Of Oz.  They are introduced in the real world for the brief exposition portion of the film, and then later used to represent the TRON program (Boxleitner), as well as other elements that serve or perform under the eye of Master Control Program in the digital computer world.  The only real entity is known as a “user,” and that is Flynn.

I got sleepy watching Tron.  I think it is because like many video games it does not challenge me to figure things out or solve the dilemma. How can I envision Flynn escaping this world before he’s zapped out of existence?  I have no idea, because I’ve not been shown anything that demonstrates how this computer world functions.  Basic video games, at least from the early 1980s, were primarily about timing your button pushes and jerking the joystick accurately and timely.  Like the film Tron, they were never about application of the mind. 

No.  Movies are not meant for me to solve their riddles all the time.  Often, if I’m not trying to figure out how to resolve a story’s conflict, then I’m at least absorbed in the writing and performances of the cast.  The music might heighten the adventure or suspense.  The set designs will dazzle me.  Don’t get me wrong.  This Star Wars fanatic loves visual effects, but without any kind of story or suspense for the players and their outcome, what’s left to watch?  Tron is as dimensional as a blank index card for me. All these grids and lines are no more exciting than office stationery.

Tron from 1982 may seem very outdated, forty years later, but as a ten-year-old, I recall not being impressed either.  The sound design is annoying as when the digital players walk with clunk, clunk footsteps.  The objects on film are just sketched out, geometric glowing, colored lines on a black background. There is no depth, at all, to Flynn, Lora, Alan, Dillinger, or their computer counterparts.  In 1982, this might have been groundbreaking. For the Atari lovers this may have been the answer to many of their prayers.  I dunno.  Maybe I couldn’t relate or understand back then because my tyrant for a father denied me of an Atari game console.  I certainly don’t understand the fascination now. 

I have a 100-sheet pad of graph paper, here in my desk.  I’ll stand my Darth Vader action figure on a page and just stare at it for five minutes.  There!  Now, I can say I’ve watched Tron for a third time.

THE THING (1982)

By Marc S. Sanders

Often, a great beginning to a film offers an intriguing question. So as I finally watched John Carpenter’s 1982 interpretation of The Thing, I was especially curious as to why a sniper aboard a fast moving helicopter was targeting a dog running across the open plains of Antarctica with a pulse pounding beat from legendary film composer Ennio Morricone. The film has me hooked and none of the gory horror to come, compliments of creature effects wizard Rob Bottin, has even presented itself yet.

Gore never did anything for me in horror, and horror has never been my most favorite genre of film. Rather, suspense always held my attention and kept me thinking long after the movie was over. Carpenter’s film is full of Bottin’s imaginative gore but the paranoia and mistrust among a crew of science operatives is the real centerpiece here. Whether it’s the innocence of a dog or the star power of Kurt Russell, I never trusted the narrative of The Thing and that’s the point.

An exceptional scene on the same level as the dinner scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien occurs following a crew man suffering a heart attack. The defibrillator is brought out, “CLEAR” is shouted and the man is zapped. Then something else happens. I won’t spoil the moment. Yet, this is where imagination was put to work; where effects and storytelling work cohesively. Thankfully, moments like these become a running theme throughout The Thing. You never know what to expect from an unmeasurable and incomprehensible enemy. The fact that resources are scarce and escape is impossible traps our characters and the viewer as well.

Convenient, fast learning knowledge only tells you that this entity can duplicate anything it comes in contact with. So, you might just be sidling up to the thing itself and you won’t even know it until it’s too late.

Isolation, lack of trust, fear, paranoia – all of these elements work towards the advantage of superb imagination and storytelling in Carpenter’s piece.

The Thing was always a movie that eluded me. I’m now so grateful to have witnessed it. It makes me yearn for better storytelling in today’s films beyond remakes and superhero exhaustion.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is an absolute must see motion picture. Watch it with friends and watch it with the lights turned off.


By Marc S. Sanders

Sidney Lumet is a master filmmaker at shooting predominantly talkie films. In The Verdict by David Mamet, his best special effect is, at least, the just as legendary Paul Newman as washed-up alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin. Lumet opts to shoot Newman for the screen talent he is. Occasionally, his camera points up at Newman, who looks as if he will fall over. Lumet also makes Newman look great as he runs down a hallway, or with a stare of his familiar blue eyes. The chemistry of camera and performance are blended rhythmically.

Alcoholism has been depicted countless times, but Newman’s interpretation ranks at the top of the list. He can’t function without his drink whether it’s gaining a high score on pinball, flirting, reading a brief or even getting a fast protein fix by dropping an egg yolk in a beer. Paul Newman makes you wonder if Frank Galvin is going to pass out or fall asleep even while he’s barely practicing legal brilliance. He toes the line beautifully between coming undone and barely squeaking by. This is one of his best roles ever.

Frank is given a chance to salvage himself as goes up against the Boston Archdiocese and the hospital it owns in a case of medical negligence, who are represented by a conniving antagonist in the form of James Mason with his limitless resources, power, strategies and army of lawyers. If this were a silent film, I’d buy it with Mason twisting a handlebar mustache. He’s absolutely a man you love to hate.

The dialogue crackles against simply the inflection of vocals from Newman, Mason, an unexpected Charlotte Rampling as Galvin’s sudden love interest, a difficult judge played by Milo O’Shea, and Frank’s assistant played Jack Warden. The delivery of lines, the twisty double crosses, and conflicts play to the precision of great Shakespeare. So much so that when on the rare occasion these characters curse or the ominous cue of music steps in, it’s all shocking and applauded.

The settings are great for atmosphere too. Worn in leather chairs, polished cherrywood tables and courtrooms with their squeaky floors. This is a well-worn Massachusetts backdrop of legal reputation and intimidation.

Every member of the filmmaking team from Lumet to the cast, to the composer,Johnny Mandel, and David Mamet’s fantastic script have been thought out and measured to completion.

Some will say this film is dated (rotary phones, ladies’ hairstyles, wardrobe; year of release was 1982). I say its themes are still significant. Power is something that must always be overcome by a weak, flawed protagonist. Whether or not Frank Galvin can do it, matters not. It’s the struggle that’s important to follow in a film like The Verdict.


By Marc S. Sanders

It’s easy to give credit to a magnificent script by Melissa Mathison when talking about E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.  However, director Steven Spielberg clearly invented tricks of his own off her page.  Thus, E.T. strikes a chord with me on a very personal level. 

While my parents never separated or divorced, in my adolescent years I did not have any kind of relationship with my father.  He left for work at 4:30AM and would not come home until nine at night.  He worked Saturdays as well.  I hardly saw him.  He hardly conversed with me.  One time, later on in life, he explained to me that he just never knew how to connect with a child.  It was only then that I understood why his response of “Oh wow!” amazement seemed so fake when I showed him how the wings pop off of my Star Wars TIE Fighter.

Mom was the constant in my life with regular Saturday trips to Burger King, and the comic book and toy stores, while singing along to Barry Manilow in the car.  The adults I viewed in my childhood were mom and my grandmother, Helen.  So, I understand why Steven Spielberg opts to only include Mary (Dee Wallace), the one adult in full focus through most of his picture.  Mary has recently separated from her husband leaving her to tend to their three children. Gertie (Drew Barrymore) is the youngest. Michael (Robert MacNaughton) is eldest.  Elliot (Henry Thomas) is the middle child and main character of the story.  These kids have no other important influence in their lives except their mom and maybe Michael’s buddies.  Their father is only mentioned to be vacationing in Mexico with his new girlfriend, but never seen.

After an alien ship departs Earth while looking for plant life in a California forest, one of the passengers is sadly left behind.  Through a series of suspenseful moments, Elliot welcomes the stranger from a strange world into the comfort of his room full of toys and games.  A connection is immediately made of trust and friendship, but on a science fiction level, there is also psychic bond.  Somehow, Elliot and E.T. share one another’s thoughts and can feel what the other feels.  In a humorous moment, E.T. gets drunk on beer while being left at home alone.  This leads to disruptions caused by Elliot during a frog dissection scene in science class.  Even deeper though is that E.T.’s biological make up doesn’t appear to be suitable for a long stay on Earth.  As E.T. gets more and more ill, so does Elliot.  It is up to him and his siblings to help their new friend “phone home” so he can be rescued. 

The interference in all of this are the government officials who are surveying the suburban neighborhood for clues on E.T.’s whereabouts.  Wisely, and because Mathison’s story is told primarily through the perspective of children, Spielberg shows these men from the waist down.  After all, if Elliot and the others can’t identify with these adults, why is it necessary to show their faces? (In Jaws, the townsfolk can’t identify with the man-eating instincts of a great white shark.  So, why is it necessary to show the animal?)  One adult in particular is a man who has a keychain clipped to his waist.  The film credits the character simply as “Keys” (Peter Coyote).  Only when the safety of Elliot, E.T. and the family are intruded upon in their home, does Spielberg show the faces of these scientists and G-men.  Still, most of them are displayed with intimidating radiation suits and masks on.  If they absolutely have to be shown, then they are going to look more obscure and threatening then any alien from outer space.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial will always remain as of one Steven Spielberg’s greatest achievements.  That’s saying quite a lot considering his other films like the Indiana Jones series, Schindler’s List, Jaws and Saving Private Ryan.  What sets this picture apart from those others is the gamut of emotions it sends to the generations of audiences that continue to watch the movie over and over again.  It’s very funny at times.  It’s also very scary, and it can be very sad as well.  At one point, Elliot has to explain why a daring escape for E.T. must occur because “This is reality, Greg!”  Of course it is, no adult would ever believe what they’re involved in.  It takes a child to comprehend this wonderment.  The unknown is frightening as well.  What exactly is leaving footprints behind in the shed?  Is it a goblin?  Also, why are frightening looking figures with helmets and astronaut suits barging out of bright light into every doorway of their home?  As well, how does someone from another place adapt to a foreign environment of stuffed animals, flowers, and what’s on T.V. or in the refrigerator?  In two hours time, Spielberg answers for all of these dynamics. You develop a kinship with not just E.T., the cinematic creation, but also the kids who snap at each other and sometimes affectionately curse and tease one another. 

You also feel the sadness of a mother who is trying her best to uphold a home while hiding a sense of abandonment herself.  E.T. was left behind, but so was Mary.  Dee Wallace provides an exceptionally tear-jerking experience on Halloween night.  The following morning, she is distraught to find a missing Elliot finally return home with a high fever.  I see my mother in that scene each time I watch it.  Now that my mom is gone, it’s even more meaningful.

Spielberg’s film also works beautifully with an original score from John Williams.  Williams’ music speaks a language for the characters of the film.  Sometimes, his orchestration is foreboding as someone unseen lurks nearby.  Other times, it soars as the adventure kicks into gear with an outstanding bicycle escape from the government.  Williams also relaxes the pulse of the audience for the tender moments while a friendship of love and support is being built.  Watch how the score enhances the fantasy when E.T.’s fingertip glows and heals a cut on Elliot’s hand.  Williams hits a note that is in sync with Henry Thomas’ amazement.  The best sample of Spielberg’s craft blending well with Williams’ work is when Elliot’s bicycle soars into the sky with E.T. as a passenger.  As they ride across the backdrop of a full moon midnight clear, this movie provides one of the greatest shots in film history.  If there was ever a reason to prove why an original score is so necessary in film, it’s important to use E.T. as an example.

Steven Spielberg was especially sensitive when making E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.  I saw an interview with him where he decided that once E.T. departs the children of the story, the actors themselves would never see him again.  He insisted on that with young Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas, and he warned them in advance.  Because he was steadfast in that decision, their performances were all the more genuine.  Their tears of love and sadness were kept authentic.   In one documentary, footage following the end of shooting with E.T. shows Barrymore completely distraught in the comfort of Spielberg’s arms.  Spielberg knows that everyone suffers loss.  It’s a rite of passage in life.  My first loss was my grandfather at age 9.  Imagine coming to the understanding for the very first time that someone you’ve grown close to will never be seen ever again. 

That’s the magic that Steven Spielberg possesses.  He can make anything feel real.  His fantasies and frights are true in nature.  Nothing appears ham-handed.  When watching a film from Spielberg, you’re enveloped in its environment.  What’s in front of you is what will terrify you or laugh with you or make you cry.  What you are seeing, and hearing will allow you to reminisce on a time in your life when you were scared or sad or happy or lonely.  Steven Spielberg might have used people from outer space in his films to tell us that we are not alone.  However, we are also not alone in our feelings.  Steven Spielberg reminds us that we all encounter these emotions at point or another and therefore, there’s nothing wrong with responding like any other human being would. 


By Marc S. Sanders

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a technical and special effects masterpiece…however thin-very thin-its story may be. 

When the film was originally released in 1982, its period setting of November 2019 seemed unimaginable.  So, it was easy to accept that the dystopian future first conceived by author Phillip K. Dick (in his book Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) could actually happen.  With the Vietnam War behind us, and shopping malls becoming the happening place to be in our Members Only jackets and Jordache jeans with Swatch watches, the 1980s seemed like eternal bliss.  Middle class America felt prosperous and free and comfortable with a President on his way to eight years in office.  Bright pastel and neon colors took over.  A hopeless, dreary future was all but fantasy.  Therefore, just like Star Wars, a gritty, urban Los Angeles seemed like another possibility where science fiction had become as trendy as super hero movies are today.  It was cold and rainy and dirty, but we wanted to see that because that was nowhere near what we were living in, much less envisioning. 

Ridley Scott achieved greatness with visuals never thought possible.  George Lucas might have introduced moviegoers to desert and swamp planets and industrialist Death Stars, but Scott delivered an Earth where Coca-Cola, Pan Am, Atari and Cuisinart still existed amid a dark, rainy Chinatown section of Los Angeles with glowing umbrella handles, flying police cars and cabs, hovering electronic billboards, and exhaust flames that spewed out of the rooftops of cylindrical skyscrapers.  Ridley Scott might have supervised this palette of futuristic film-noir, but the real heroes of Blade Runner belong to its Oscar nominees Lawrence G. Paull, David L. Snyder, and Linda DeScenna for set decoration, as well as Douglas Trumbull (already a legend for 2001: A Space Odyssey), Richard Yuricich and David Dryer for visual effects.  All these years later, there’s much to explore within the appearance of Blade Runner, but the storyline still remains shallower than a puddle of water.

I’ve watched Blade Runner a number of times because fellow peers and colleagues carry such admiration for the film.  I cannot deny the first third of the film holds your attention as you acclimate yourself to this enveloping world.  Once your accustomed however, the story is what has to carry you through to the end, and the journey is as slow moving as a rickshaw on one wheel.  Harrison Ford is Rick Deckard, a blade runner and the best one there is.  Upon learning of an escape of four Replicants from an off-world slave site, Deckard is tasked with coming out of retirement to hunt down these Replicants and “retire” them.  Retire is the polite word for kill, exterminate, slaughter or execute.

A replicant is an android that looks completely human, bleeds like a human and talks like a human.  It’s near impossible to tell the difference on sight between a human and a replicant. As well, replicants are manufactured with four-year life spans and are not permitted on Earth.  They are intended for the sole purpose of slavery towards their human creators.  Yet, what makes them so exemplary or offensive?  What trait do they carry that threatens their human counterparts?  Racism often occurs because of fear derived from skin color or appearance.  Antisemitism will have you believe that Jews have horns growing out of their heads under their yarmulkas.  What is so terribly misconstrued or offensive or threatening about Replicants?  The film never makes clear, and that’s frustrating.  What makes a villain a villain?

M Emmet Walsh comes on early enough to tell us through dialogue that he needs the best of the blade runners back and that’s Deckard.  When I’m to understand that I’m watching the absolute best of something, whether it be a cop, lawyer, baker, student, doctor, painter or blade runner, I want to see what exactly makes them the best.  In Top Gun, I saw the aerial maneuvers that potentially justified why Maverick could be the best of the best fighter pilots.  The problem with Blade Runner and the script, written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, is that I never see in its two-hour time span when or how Rick Deckard is such an exceptional blade runner.  How is a blade runner different from an ordinary cop or a simple person with a large gun?  No matter which of the various cuts of the film I’m watching, with or without Harrison Ford’s voiceover narration, I fail to see any outstanding fighting skills or clear thought-provoking intuition.  This guy is neither as good as Dirty Harry or Sherlock Holmes or even James Bond.  He’s not even as personable as Sam Spade, the original noir detective.  Rick Deckard just looks like Harrison Ford with a very large hand gun.  Furthermore, where does the term “Blade Runner” derive from?  Is it just there because it sounds cool?  The moniker wasn’t even created by Philip K. Dick.

The film’s eventual sequel, Blade Runner 2049, is a far superior film.  It’s longer, but it’s much more fleshed out in tone and character and understanding of its setting.  The original film stands on the heels of its cult like legendary status.  Some of the best filmmakers today cite Blade Runner as an influence in how they construct their own movies.  I buy that.  The assembly of whatever cut I’m watching is evident of how mind blowing its appearance is.  You can see some of the blue print visuals that carried over in to Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve’s pictures. But I’m past all that.  Now I need to appreciate what it’s all there for, and who is playing in its yard. 

I cannot simply rely on IMDb trivia and endless social media sites that speculate on whether Deckard is a replicant himself, or why he dreams of a unicorn and why Ridley Scott opted not to include said dream in the original cut.  I cannot just tickle my curiosity with the picture’s eerie foreshadowing of the various product placements that suffered real life eventual downfalls after its release.  Beyond the visuals, what am I watching Blade Runner for?  This is not just a riddle in the Sunday paper.

The film boasts an eclectic cast that work well together.  I just wish they were provided with something much more insightful with background and personal experience.  Rutger Hauer became a familiar name following the release of this picture.  When he’s finally given the opportunity within the second hour of the film to come off as hideous and terrifying and strange, it’s worth looking at.  His famous “tears in the rain” closing dialogue is beautifully poetic, as it was personally written by him.  It’s as ambiguous as the film.  Yet, Shakespeare can be vague too.  I might not understand what anyone is talking about, but the performance can keep my attention.  Regrettably, he does not do much else in the film beyond his closing fight scene with Ford.  Ridley Scott insisted on casting Sean Young as Rachel, as her appearance was reminiscent of Vivian Leigh.  She’s intentionally mysterious as a likely replicant and/or niece of the wealthy creator of the replicants, Dr. Tyrell.  It works, but again, if the viewer is going to be questioned on the mystery of this major character early on, then why doesn’t the film follow further into that enigma?  You don’t have to say for sure, but at least give me evidence to argue one way or the other.  The same goes for the speculation on Deckard.  Had it not been for outside references, I’d never question who or what Deckard really is.  Daryl Hannah, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy round out the rest of the cast/replicants within the film.  Edward James Olmos is here too with a curious and odd habit of making origami.  They all have their unique way or look about them.  In science fiction, every character should stand apart.  Yet, again, it’s all about appearance.  What is the motivation here?  What is the motivation to live on earth or off earth?  What is the motivation to kill a human?  What is the motivation to kill a replicant?

I’ve beaten my head enough over this film.  Blade Runner has always been frustrating to me.  Maybe I’m not being fair to myself, as I try to find something else or some underlying layer each time I watch it.  Why do people love this movie so much?  Why does it consistently appear on “greatest of all time” tabulations?  Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just pounding sand, or maybe as Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty suggests, I’m impossibly looking for tears in rain.


By Marc S. Sanders

I was only a mild fan of the original Star Trek television show. Some storylines were flat and simply a bore. It had some thrilling moments though, including episodes that I’ve watched on repeat. (The Squire Of Gothos was always my favorite.) Unfortunately, the first big budgeted Trek film followed suit of the weaker, less interesting aspects of Gene Roddenberry’s series. Thankfully, Paramount Pictures with producer Harve Bennett had enough faith to try once more and get it right. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is one of my favorite science fiction films of all time.

Bennett invested time in rewatching the entire series looking for the return of a formidable foe against the crew of the famed Starship Enterprise, and he settled on the power mad muscled genius, Khan (played with gravitas and impressive pecs by Ricardo Montalban) from the series episode Space Seed.

Khan, along with his wife and crew were left marooned by Captain James T Kirk (William Shatner) on a barren planet for their crimes. Fifteen years have passed and Chekhov (Walter Koenig) along with his Captain (Paul Winfield) unexpectedly come upon the villain’s vessel. Now Khan has taken control of their starship with a vow for revenge upon Kirk.

Caught in the middle of this conflict is a new age device called “Genesis” which has the potential to create life from non life. Find a planet devoid of any living organism and allow the device to go to work. In Khan’s hands though, it could serve as a terribly destructive weapon.

Regardless of its ending, The Wrath Of Khan offers the best performance by Willam Shatner with his memorably storied character. There’s more depth than ever in Kirk. He is now ranked as an Admiral who in turn is denied of directly commanding a starship, his greatest career accomplishment. He’s fearful of aging as his birthday approaches. He also meets up with a past flame whom he shares a son with. There’s plenty of dimension devoted to Kirk, and it all works. None of it feels mired down. This is a story devoted primarily to Shatner’s character with the others in tow. He looks so comfortable in the role as he walks the halls of the Enterprise. Because he always looks like he knows where he’s going, so does the audience. He’s very casual in his manner. The setting of the starship has life when Kirk is populated within it.

Furthermore, the friendship he has with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) feels solid. When Spock gifts Kirk an antique copy of Charles Dicken’s A Tale Of Two Cities, you feel cozy in the history of these two people. It’s further noted in Kirk’s relationship with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly). It’s important to realize that this film is only the second film following three seasons of an episodic television show that more or less just showed villains of the week. We never had an opportunity to really get inside Kirk’s head before. So despite the vastness of Star Trek, it’s main players were arguably still quite green.

Director Nicholas Meyer (the best one of all the films), turns two sea captains upon one another amid an ocean of space as they play battleship. You get a strong idea of the tactician that Khan is. Montalban is great as a Captain Ahab seeking to destroy his Moby Dick, suitably relying on quoting Melville’s classic novel. Meyer is so good at drawing from the best of both sides. The adversity between Khan and Kirk works very effectively that you hardly realize that Shatner and Montalban never appear on the same set together. Both primarily work from their Captain’s chairs. The set ups play with much strategy and good back and forth dialogue as they communicate by screen images. Call it their “Zoom Session” if you must. Ultimately, this film demonstrates that how a movie is only as strong as its villain.

The Enterprise setting also looks superb with its elevators, curved and endless hallways, engineering platforms & alcoves and submarine like doors. The command bridge looks realistically functional too. Everything on the Enterprise seems like it has a working purpose. When crew members are running towards something or climbing a ladder, Nicholas Meyer makes it feel like you know where these people are going and what they are trying to do.

Composer James Horner also needs a good amount of credit. At times, his music comes off frightening. As Khan makes various approaches with his ship, Horner has this claw like thunder clap cued in to the danger. His more upbeat tempos feel like proud militaristic marches for the Starfleet characters. You get that feeling especially in the opening credits. During a sequence where the two ships are flying blind through a nebula, the music is eerily string like and quiet. Horner studied this film to get the absolute best notes.

The ending is heartbreaking and suitable to the character arc that Kirk experiences. While it is surprising, it’s also pleasingly foreshadowed, wrapping up the internal dilemma that Kirk grapples with over the course of the film.

I would argue that Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan turned out to be the most vitally important chapter in the famous franchise’s history. It succeeded in acting, writing, effects, setting, score and direction. Had this film not generated a response from audiences, I have to wonder if any more of Star Trek would ever have been seen again.

One thing for sure, you don’t have to be a die hard fan to really appreciate a great film like The Wrath Of Khan.