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Harvey R. Greenberg (essay date fall 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8473

SOURCE: Greenberg, Harvey R. “Reimagining the Gargoyle: Psychoanalytic Notes on Alien.Camera Obscura, no. 15 (fall 1986): 86-109.

[In the following essay, Greenberg discusses the qualities of the central monster in Alien, rating it among the most frightening in film history, and examines the significance of the monster as a symbol of “capitalism's depredations.”]

I admire its purity … a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality. …

Ash, Science Officer, the Nostromo

If Hair proclaimed the Age of Aquarius, Close Encounters of the Third Kind surely celebrated its last gasp. According to Steven Spielberg's vision, our troubles would be resolved by Aquarian consciousness-raising sessions conducted by relentlessly benevolent extraterrestrials. But then a stretto of disasters put paid to the aspirations of Woodstock Nation. Three Mile Island, the plunging dollar, the spectacle of the American imperium held hostage by shabby ideologues—these and sundry other narcissistic injuries refurbished our pessimism, setting us to brood upon apocalypse.

With the situation so grim below, how could we remain sanguine about the good intentions of celestial messengers? Through that obscure feedback process by which the cinematic dream factory translates inchoate collective angst into extravagant scenarios, we have been served up an outerspace ghoulie to match the proper paranoia of the day—Alien!

Despite its contemporary iconography, Alien hearkens back to the malignant conception of unearthly life found in fifties science fiction, during another watershed of national self-doubt and paranoia. In the setting of spreading global communism, fading postwar prosperity, and the renewed threat of nuclear holocaust, Hollywood disgorged an army of implacable invaders feasting upon flesh and blood, like the brainy carrotman of The Thing; or cannibalizing consciousness, like the emotionally sanforized Pod People of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Alien contains numerous citations from these fifties classics, allusions to Forbidden Planet and similar arcana that excite cultists, but hardly make for big box office. Nor does Alien's populist political stance and debatable feminism explain its staggering popularity. “In space, no one can hear you scream,” the promo poster tantalizes. It shows a cracked egg, backlit harshly. Dared to discover the source of this soundless scream, we go to the theater, gag on bloody recognitions, then—according to demographics—return again for more. The “repeater” phenomenon of past “weird” films has become even more significant with recent horror hits like The Exorcist and Alien. How to explain it?

In an earlier essay I suggested that part of the weird genre's vast appeal resides in its flamboyant catharsis of our timor mortis.

By participating in the macabre pageant of weird cinema … we tilt at the myriad deaths conjured up from childhood conflict and injury. We shriek and grin and mock at alien yet familiar deaths, delighting for a few moments in a dubious victory over our infantile distortions and the grim truth of mortality. …1

This bizarre cure grows worse than the disease it addresses when

horror beyond psychological tolerance cancels enjoyment, nullifies catharsis. The film becomes a nightmare from which it is impossible to awaken after leaving the safety of the theater, an unmastered trauma that continues to plague the mind. …2

With few exceptions, the creators of vintage fantasy refused to violate our child-like faith that the weird movie might scare us but never really harm us, saving the rare catastrophic reaction of the exceptionally vulnerable viewer. This fragile trust was irrevocably abrogated by Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 benchmark masterpiece, Psycho. The English Hammer Studio productions flooded the screen with stylized gore in the fifties, but Psycho truly legitimized the showing of violence to large...

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general audiences. With extraordinary craft, Hitchcock welded the excesses of the Grand Guignol to a panoply of disturbing, perverse psychological motifs—rape, voyeurism, necrophilia—which had previously been explored more distantly and tactfully. Never had viewers been so cunningly seduced by a mere “thriller” into attending scenes of eroticized butchery.

Paradoxically, this species of trauma encouraged repeated exposure; not out of masochism, but the very human wish for mastery, to prove to the vulnerable self that one can face mortal danger and survive. Many viewers rushed to Psycho on a dare, as they would later rush to Alien, and got far more than they bargained for. They told their friends, everyone came back in droves. Concentration camp survivors, in a desperate attempt to master the unmasterable, often dream themselves back into torment. Analogously, Psycho, more than any previous horror film, compelled us against our better judgement to seek out hell at the Bijou. …


Psycho's financial and artistic success spurred the escalation of violence throughout cinema, especially within the weird genre. It became the prototype for a sub-genre I will categorize as “cruel” or “hardcore” horror, comprising pictures that skirt the edge of the impermissible visually and psychologically, or plunge over the edge.

Shot on low budgets, employing unknown actors and waning Hollywood luminaries, many cruel films piled up fortunes on the drive-in exploitation circuit. The best—or most notorious—of these frightful cheapies are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,Night of the Living Dead,The Hills Have Eyes,Last House on the Left; more recently Halloween,Friday the 13th,Nightmare on Elm Street (and sequels). Huge profits from exploitation screenings eventually restored cruel cinema to the legitimacy Psycho had acquired. Expensive, high production value shockers like The Exorcist,The Omen, and Carrie generated megabucks through massive distribution to family audiences. Although the number of cruel films produced has declined today, the sub-genre still does well at the box office, and exceptionally well in home video rentals.

It is a monument to Psycho's enduring power that its elegant or execrable spinoffs continue to reflect its cynical appraisal of the human condition and its cooly harmful attitude towards the audience. In cruel cinema, any possibility for a healing catharsis is deliberately sacrificed in favor of overwhelming the viewer's capacity to endure psychic pain. The attack may be crafted with exquisite visual manipulations, and little if any actual on-screen violence—viz., John Carpenter's work in The Fog. It may be unremittingly raw, as in the nonstop carnage of George Romero's films. Or it may modulate between a raw and cool approach, as in the cinema of DePalma.

The Weltanschauung which informs Psycho and its cruel successors is paranoid/Hobbesian. Hitchcock predicates exploitation as the central experience of relatedness. He elaborates an articulating chain of victims and victimizers which culminates in a monstrous exploitation within the family. Norman Bates, murderous motel manager and avian taxidermist, is a psychological zombie. The marrow of his ego has been sucked dry by his mother during her life; after her death, her malignant internalized image continues to rule him. Mutatis mutandis, Norman has slaughtered, gutted, and stuffed his mother after she threatened to abandon him for a new husband. To affirm their tainted symbiosis, he carries her mummy about the house as if she were an invalid, maintaining a creepy illusion of her need for him.

Since Psycho, the cruel movie has busily engendered similar monstrosities, born out of disturbed family relations (Carrie,Rosemary's Baby,The Exorcist). Alternately, the entire family is presented as a deviant monster (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,The Hills Have Eyes). For a lengthier discussion of this trend and its ramifications the reader is referred to Robin Wood's admirable essay, “The Return of the Repressed.”3

Cruel cinema has also powerfully discoursed on the exploitative viciousness Hitchcock saw lurking within family life. Sometimes a family member will transform suddenly into a monster, turning savagely upon spouse, parent, siblings (Night of the Living Dead,The Children). Or, monstrous from birth, the child beast feeds upon strangers (It's Alive!). The monstrous family preys upon its own, or maintains its perverse solidarity by attacking outsiders (The Hills Have Eyes). Murder and rapine flourish, but the signatory crime of cruel cinema is cannibalism.

The taint of cannibalism is subliminal in Psycho. Hitchcock dwells predominantly on the devouring of psychic identity—a theme privileged in the weird genre. Norman and his mummified Mum dine upon each other's egos. Mrs. Bates's withered husk is emblematic of that foul feast; the ghastly image of her shrunken skull, her leathery lips pulled back into a charnel house grin, evoked a ravening orality. Vastly potent, it provoked less fastidious talents after Hitchcock to “embody” the devouring of the self's substance, in the loathsome consumptions of the cannibalistic family monster.

The celebration of cannibalism reaches its zenith with the most traumatizing movies ever made—George Romero's “Dead” trilogy, Night of the Living Dead,The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes. In the Romero cycle, the newly dead rise again through some inexplicable agency to become ghouls. Amidst the wholesale slaughter, the cannibalistic corruption of family relationships is particularly harrowing. Mortally wounded loved ones succumb, then resurrect to tear their bereaved into pieces. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes respectively present psychotic and mutant families which sustain themselves by eating intruders. Their bloodthirsty orgies leave nothing to the imagination. Norma Bates's mummified skull is repeatedly reincarnated: in the half-eaten skull which first reveals ghoulish attack in Night of the Living Dead; in the skull-cum-lamp of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; in the severed head of the tourist father which the mutant patriarch of The Hills Have Eyes impales upon a stake.

Besides deriding the family “togetherness” valorized by the American heartland, these films also satirize the competitiveness central to the American dream. In Dawn of the Dead, Romero's zombies are drawn to a huge shopping mall. They totter about the aisles in a grotesque parody of conspicuous consumerism until living prey attracts them. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, the cannibalistic behavior of the deviant families is wittily counterpoised against the competitive striving of the “normals” who have wandered into their turf. Capitalism is pictured as a less egregious form of the deviant's cannibalism, a normative rapacity sanctioned by culture and family. Wood mordantly observes that the family of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre only carries to its logical conclusion “the basic (though unstated) tenet of capitalism that people have the right to live off other people … capitalism represents the ultimate in possessiveness, hence the logical end of human relations under capitalism. …”4

I will now undertake a reading of Alien as legitimate inheritor of Psycho and its cruel lineage regarding its stylistic conventions, its frontal attack upon viewer sensibility, and its re-invention of the above motifs in outer space—particularly its Hobbesian perception of degraded relationships within family and state. My interpretations are based upon what the film shows and says, plus information furnished by Ridley Scott, Alien's director and guiding intelligence.5


The film opens with the letters A—L—I—E—N slowly etching themselves in a futuristic/runic script. Behind them the camera tracks across the galactic void. Cut to a long shot of a space vehicle, hovering over subtitles:





After these slim facts about the Nostromo and its mission, the viewer is set squarely down in medias res. One then pieces out an exceptionally vivid impression of Alien's time, unencumbered by those self-conscious explanations about “how we came to be here” that so often have marred the science fiction film.

The Nostromo's formidable technology constitutes a dull given for its people. The ship is a high-tech rustbucket, an old warhorse of the interstellar “Company's” merchant fleet, returning not from Ulyssean adventures, but prosaic commercial enterprise. Its crew is also unextraordinary. Like their well-worn surroundings, they are utterly and rather wonderfully there, a collection of competent loners one would find aboard a similar vessel in ancient Phoenicia or the East India Trade.

Most viewers come to Alien old cinema spacehands, too—not as inclined to gasp at outerspace vistas after a glut of Star Wars special effects. Alien's creators have subsumed the audience's tacit acceptance of the previously marvelous, in order to manipulate the gleaming mechanics of “straight” science fiction towards darker ends.

The Nostromo complex consists of several refineries—half-spheroids topped by towers and spires—linked to a central tug module. In the first long-shot the entire structure looks like a warren of abandoned gothic cathedrals, suspended in midair. One's impression is distinctly not of the future, but of some indeterminate fantasy realm—Oz, or more pointedly, the terrible dark houses of vintage horror cinema: Dr. Frankenstein's mountain laboratory, Dracula's eyrie, even the Bates's Victorian mansion.

The next shot is a tight close-up of the Nostromo's massive ventral plane rumbling across frame. This detailed immensity has been a commonplace of genre iconography since 2001, rendering tomorrow's apparatus awesome and tangible. But here, instead of being lit starkly (another commonplace), the ship's surface is sunken in shadow, vaguely threatening. The Nostromo's “terrible house” equivalencies, combined with the darkness of the ship's surface in the subsequent passing shot, at once kindle a feeling of disquieting ambiguity that pervades the flat “suchness” of space-age technology throughout the film. More than any previous work (including Metropolis), Alien evokes simultaneous resonances within the horror and science fiction canons in representing a future milieu.

This feat is accomplished by exceptional design which imbues futuristic hardware with haunting “horrific” connotations quite apart from function; viz., the hieratic helmets—they resemble Aztec skulls!—resting upon the dead computer terminals in the deserted control room at the film's beginning. Ridley Scott's vision of Nostromo's hardware also shifts facilely between the locutions of science fiction and the horror/suspense film. For example, the decks are first presented as a maze of unexceptional storerooms, conduits, grills, and greasy machinery. As tension mounts, Scott transforms them into a tenebrous labyrinth, filled with false leads and murderous cul-de-sacs, through which the crew members stalk or are stalked by the elusive monster.

I cite only one of the numerous paraphrases of classic horror cinema during these sequences: Brett, seeking Jones the cat, approaches the Nostromo's cavernous undercarriage storeroom. Through subjective camera work, the gates seem to advance towards him, charged with an ineluctable menace—just as the front doors of the Bates house in Psycho seem to move eerily towards Vera Miles as she goes to penetrate the mystery behind them.

The unsettling quality of the “ordinary” future environment foregrounds the unabashed weirdness of the wrecked derelict. Much of the uncanniness in the derelict's exploration derives not from the outlandishness of the vessel, but from the nagging similarity of its structures to human organs, particularly the organs of reproduction (reflecting Alien's preoccupation with monstrous gestations).

The entire craft resembles a stupendous uterine-fallopian system. The crew members enter the ship through one of three unmistakably vaginal hatches. The main deck is shaped like an enormous spine/rib cage. Kane, lowered into the bowels of the derelict, discovers the Alien hatch laid out in the pelvis of a mighty vertebral column. The fossilized “space jockey's” giant skeleton rests upon a control chair, from which juts a huge penile shaft. The chair itself resembles an operating table; here, eons ago, some unfortunate pilot from another race died of the same catastrophic Caesarean which later terminates Kane.

Science fiction frequently offers an “acceptable” rationale for frightening psychotic or archaic mental phenomena. Clinical corollaries of the derelict's megalithic anatomy are found in the changes in body image experienced during a hallucinatory drug trip or an acute schizophrenic episode. One recalls Victor Tausk's intriguing hypothesis that the paranoid schizophrenic projects the skewed sense of his own body into the crazy design of the “influencing machine.”

These distortions are thought to be extravagant elaborations of early percepts of self and “other.” The uncanny feelings aroused in the viewer by the derelict's great innards may likewise be rooted in infantile oceanic impressions of one's body and of the immense, ineffably mysterious physicality of nurturing adults. In this regard, the investigation of the derelict has been interpreted as a symbolic return to the maternal womb and beyond, an oneiric quest for truth about the origins of being.6


No matter how evocative the milieu, the monster film ultimately stands or falls on the believability of its inhuman protagonist. Many promising films have foundered when the monster stood ludicrously revealed. Neither talent nor cash was spared by Alien's production team in manufacturing a credible being.7 Superbly executed and artfully deployed, the Alien is one of the most frightening monsters ever brought to the screen. The qualities owned separately by the best of the breed have been gathered together under one hide: the creature is mysteriously ungraspable, viciously implacable, improbably beautiful, and lewd.


Weird literary masterpieces like the stories of M. R. James triumph through discretion, and an elegant paucity of illustration. In the horror film the naked face of Thanatos is best sparingly revealed as well, lest the indescribable be described or the unnamable named. Like the dim memory of repressed trauma, what frightens us most is likely to be half-glimpsed, seized, and rehearsed in each viewer's intuition of the terrible. In this regard, Ridley Scott made an astute decision, over the objections of others in his production team. He shows his exquisitely designed monster briefly and ambiguously.

The explosion of a seething tongue of flesh out of the Alien egg lasts the blur of an instant. The only version of the creature that registers in detail is the “face hugger”; besides the egg form, it's the most quiescent of the Alien's stages, befitting its relatively passive function as Kane's nurturer. The “chest burster” form is still for a few seconds before it careens out of the mess.

The adult Alien is photographed so obliquely that a coherent gestalt can never be constructed. When it drops upon Brett it seems like a huge phallic tube; during Lambert's slaughter, one only sees a sinuous tail curling around her leg. Fully ninety percent of the Alien footage consists of close-ups of its head and jaws, from which one bears away a hobgoblin vision of metalloid skullbrow, cruelly curling lips, needle-teeth dripping luminescent saliva—Alien's reprise of Norma Bates's skull. The entire creature appears for the first and last time in the shuttlecraft, but the viewer's sight is obscured by flashing strobes within the ship, and by the dazzling engine exhaust outside. Scott thus compels the viewer to piece together an impression of the monster based on tantalizing fragments, fleshed out by the potent nuances of subjective fantasy, surely the scariest beast of all (shades of Orwell's Room 101 in 1984!).

The Alien's enigmatic appearance is further compounded by its mutability. King Kong's genes dictate no other form but hairy apehood, nor is Frankenstein's monster likely to burst his stitches and assume other shapes. But like the Old Man of the Sea, awful transformations are native to the Alien's life cycle, central to its survival. The awareness of its quick-change potential keeps the viewer in a state of even greater unease, anticipating what chimerical composition the creature will choose in its next reincarnation.

In keeping with this ambiguity of shape, Ridley Scott deliberately provides the sketchiest information about the Alien's developmental phases. It is a Linnean nightmare, defying every natural law of evolution; by turns bivalve, crustacean, reptilian, and humanoid. It seems capable of lying dormant within its egg indefinitely. It sheds its skin like a snake, its carapace like an arthropod. It deposits its young within other species like a wasp.

Intermediate or alternate stages are hinted at, but never clarified. Scott deleted a sequence in which Ripley discovers Brett and Dallas in cocoons. Dallas is still alive, in agony and recognizably human. Brett is dead; the shrunken husk of his body contains the larval Alien and has further progressed in dreadful metamorphosis towards the egg form. From this scene, one could easily discover that the eggs in the derelict's hatch were the implanted, mutated bodies of its crew, awaiting yet another unwary host. But Scott obviously thought the satisfaction of closure would be better sacrificed in order to keep the Alien an awesome enigma.

One further intuits that the Alien's mutability is not solely dictated by a fixed if remarkably various life cycle, but by formidable mechanisms that allow it to mutate literally second by second, in conformation with the changing stresses of its milieu. It responds according to Lamarckian and Darwinian principles. When it attacks Ripley, it looks much smaller and more humanoid than before. Several observers, Ridley Scott included, have rather horribly suggested that its next manifestation would be fully human—at least on the outside!


Movie monsters frequently provoke fear and pity because they embody the persecuted outsider, excluded from quotidian joys and sorrows. In Karloff's poignant portrayal, Frankenstein's creation became a misunderstood, battered child who identified with its oppressors. It only gave back in kind the ill-treatment afforded by its laboratory “parents” and society at large. Even Dracula drew a measure of compassion from Lugosi's performance because of the eternal torment of his immortality.

The Alien stems from a different line of monsters, creations that provoke terror untempered by sympathy by virtue of the inhumanity of their form, their divorce from human concerns, or the catastrophic nature of their onslaughts. Examples of “unsympathetic” monsters with inhuman shapes include the giant insects, birds, and crustaceans of the post-atomic era (Them,The Giant Claw,Attack of the Crab Monsters); assorted globs of undifferentiated protoplasmic goo like The Blob or Caltiki, the Immortal Monster; vile extraterrestrial phantasmagoria like the demonic Martian grasshoppers of Five Million Years to Earth.

The unsympathetic creature's lack of empathy may originate in its lack of wit wedded to an enormous appetite. On the other hand, its brainpower may be so vastly superior (viz., the invaders of War of the Worlds), that humankind appears to it as mere fodder, or so much underbrush to be cleared away. Its attack is devastating, merciless. The victim is expunged, erased, body disintegrated, dismembered, or consumed; or else the marrow of psychic identity is sucked dry, leaving an envelope of dumb flesh for colonization.

The Alien being is patently inhuman in its earlier versions, and the adult form is never sufficiently humanoid to promote easy identification. Its IQ is problematic; it cannot be easily dismissed as a digestive machine propelled by a peabrain—Jaws in space. It demonstrates exceptional cunning while hunting the crew in its instant grasp of the Nostromo's layout, and its decision to secrete itself aboard the shuttlecraft. It is not inconceivable that it can read the crew's thoughts (the possibility that they might communicate with it is never entertained).

The ruthlessness of the Alien's attack is typically unrelenting; its victims are sundered or totally annihilated. Kane is eviscerated by the nativity of the beast; Brett is hauled off by the adult Alien, leaving only a scream behind. Dallas vanishes in the airshaft as if into thin air, a dot on Lambert's tracking screen, there one moment, gone the next.

Cornered by the Alien, Parker is garrotted—by what is not made clear. Next, there is a quick shot of an uncertain gourd of flesh (head? belly?) pierced by a toothy ramrod. Then the Alien's tail snakes around Lambert's leg, and the camera cuts briefly to a close-up of her terrified face. When Ripley arrives, all the viewer is allowed to see is Parker, hunched against a bulkhead, intact but obviously dead, as Lambert's naked and bloody foot dangles out of focus in foreframe. By careful editing, Ridley Scott leaves the exact manner of the victims' passage nearly blank, once again compelling the viewer to conjure from fantasy the direst account of their deaths.


Much of the Alien's fascination resides in its unexpected loveliness. The “face-hugger” and “chest-burster” stages are frankly repellent. But the adult Alien owns a sumptuous elegance. The robotic simulacrum of the heroine in Metropolis, and the Gillman of Creature from the Black Lagoon nearly approach this nacreous beauty. The creature's architecture is skeletal, fleshed out with a kind of flayed musculature reminiscent of Vesalius's anatomical engravings. The bony elements are supplemented by strange, streamlined mechanical structures, cartilaginous rods and pistons. The creature's skin is glistening black; a long, lustrous grey porpoise head is fitted behind a skull's facies; the outsize jaws are studded with rows of stainless steel teeth. Here is the charnel house aesthetic of the medieval Dance of Death; the hellish apparitions of Bosch; the figurations of Tibetan demonology.


A few inhabitants of Monster Alley are not without lubricious intentions—viz., Kong's moony courtship of Anne Darrow, or the Frankenstein monster's confused erotic designs upon its creator's fiancee. However, sensuality is not usually within the purview of the unsympathetic movie monster. With rare exceptions—the mutant amphibians of Humanoids from the Deep—the unsympathetic creature's depredations are too obliterating, its appearance or disposition insufficiently humanoid to project a believable sexuality.

The Alien manifests no erotic intention until its lust erupts during the final showdown with Ripley. Until then the crew members have shown little sexual interest either, compared with the clumsy yearnings weird cinema frequently depicts between heterosexual shipmates cloistered in deep space, mad scientists and their intended brides, intrepid military types and their scientific girlfriends. When Ripley steps out of her fatigues, she becomes intensely desirable and achingly vulnerable. The sight of her nearly nude body is highly arousing, in the context of the film's previous sexual neutrality, as well as the relaxation that follows the Nostromo's destruction and the creature's supposed death. Precisely at this moment, the Alien unfolds out of its hiding place.

Unlike the blinding speed of its earlier assaults, it moves slowly, languorously. It stretches its phallic head out, as if preening. Ripley, her horrified gaze fixed hypnotically upon it, retreats stealthily into the equipment locker. It extends a ramrod tongue, tipped with hinged teeth from which drips luminescent slime (KY jelly!), and hisses voluptuously. The very air is charged with the palpable threat of rape—and worse. There is no square-jawed hero to rescue this damsel in distress. Unlike Fay Wray and a legion of impotent screaming Mimis, Ripley saves herself. Her combat with her exhibitionistic assailant bears the patents of sexual engagement.

She slips into a spacesuit, crooning a love ditty to curb her panic: “You … are … my … lucky … star. …” Repeating “Lucky … lucky … lucky …,” she creeps out of the locker, and straps herself into the pilot's chair. Her breathing, amplified within her helmet, is heard in accelerating gasps and moans (a libidinous variation on the famous sequence in 2001, where Dave Bowman's breathing is heard echoing in his own ears, as he goes to disconnect the murderous HAL).

The Alien rushes upon her, maddened by poisonous gases she has triggered. Her face is sweaty, her expression dazed, very nearly ecstatic. With an orgastic wail, she slams her hand down upon the control panel and blows away the hatch. The monster hurtles out, then grips the entryway. She discharges an ejaculatory bolt from the grapnel gun, which strikes the creature full in its chest, flinging it into space. Simultaneously suffering with her, and voyeur to her victimization, the viewer (especially the male viewer) experiences a powerful commingling of raw sexual excitement and mortal terror; an effect often sought but rarely achieved so well in suspense cinema.


Like Hitchcock and DePalma, Ridley Scott incites terror in Alien through a clever blend of suggestion, indirection, and confrontation. The film contains almost as little actual on-screen mayhem as Psycho; horror is elicited rather by sophisticated manipulations of the medium.

Alien's considerable cruel reputation is based on two extraordinary gobbets of overt violence flung in the viewer's face: the birth of the Alien through Kane's shattered chest, and the Science Officer Ash's dismantling by Parker. The “chest-burster” sequence merits particular attention since it is probably the main reason many people have been dared into seeing the movie, or have returned to see it again.

Scott sets up the scene by lulling the viewer into a state of false calm. The anxiety which has been adroitly built abates with the creature's supposed death and Kane's reawakening. The viewer identifies with the crew's relief, is disarmed by their highjinks during the celebratory meal; then is plunged into even deeper disorganizing terror by Kane's awful fate. This “ratchet” effect—sharply lowering tension with a leaven of humor, then sharply escalating it so that it impacts more profoundly—is a staple of the genre, and never employed to better effect.

When Kane sickens, Parker and Ash wrestle him onto the mess table. His chest heaves, swells, a stain of blood spreads over his tunic, then the head of the infant Alien thrusts out viciously, spattering the appalled onlookers with gouts of gore and visceral shreds (Ridley Scott had his actors unexpectedly showered with entrails purchased from a nearby butcher shop to achieve their howls of shocked surprise!). The Alien looks like a dehisced organ or loop of gut, until it fully emerges as a murderous embryo. One is marginally aware of Kane's hands in the frame's periphery, clawed in agony. Parker lunges forward, a knife in his hand. Ash stops him. The creature emits a sizzling hiss and rockets away, a long reptilian tail whipping out behind it.

The most traumatizing aspect of the sequence is Kane's unexpected disembowelment. The overwhelming loathing and fear related to evisceration has rarely been addressed in the psychoanalytic literature. While the smooth exterior is readily conceptualized, a completely realistic or pleasing picture of the “insides” is not likely to be found in the average citizen's body image. A nauseous vision is usually summoned up of a smelly claustrum, stuffed with slippery ropes and lumps of flesh. One knows the vitals are vital to life, that food is processed, energy generated, the seeds of life itself planted within one's proper entrails, but it still seems necessary to the psychic economy to keep the guts safely contained, relegated to darkness.

Disembowelment abrogates this touchy sequestration irrevocably. The self's fragile envelope is definitively breached; once the abdomen is ripped open, how can Humpty Dumpty ever be put right again? After his tiny invader leaves him a gutted husk on the mess table, Kane's deadness is absolutely unassailable, a crushing narcissistic wound (like Janet Leigh's death in Psycho) to viewers who had imagined themselves omnipotently secure outside the screen.

The discovery that Ash is a robot doesn't make the spilling of his entrails less unpalatable. His evisceration, coupled with his bizarre resurrection, is even more traumatic. Ridley Scott gives the viewer a closer look at Ash's guts—unwholesome gizmos which spout greenish hydraulic goo. After Parker decapitates him with a fire extinguisher, Ash's head is rewired at a distance from his unpacked torso. His voice a dispassionate gurgle, a tiny smile plays across his lips as he expresses genteel sympathy for his shipmates' fate: “I can't lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathy. …” The utter morbidity of the moment beggars description.

Kane serves as prime focus of Alien's complex birth imagery. His intrusion into the hatch, his penetration of the blue force field, the touch of his hand that discharges the Alien out of its egg, are symbolic fertilizations. Kane is thereby uncannily implicated as subject and object in a horrific account of the primal scene. As if in talion retribution, the scene recoils upon him; his punishment for viewing and participating in the forbidden act of conception is a spectacular (sic) death precipitated by the Alien's birth.8 I submit that each viewer's catastrophic response to Kane's disembowelment may well be determined by reactivation of personal archaic fantasies about the primal scene and the birth process, in addition to the dynamics elucidated above.

Finally, the “chest-burster” sequence epitomizes the leitmotif of Alien: within a dark claustrum filled with real, simulated, or symbolic vitals, a supremely potent menace lurks, waking to tear apart and devour its unsuspecting victims. For Kane, the menace literally lives within his guts. For the remaining crew, their ship becomes one great cloaca through which the beast prowls, Grendel-like, to pick them off at its pleasure. Their plight acquires an added claustrophobic piquancy by the immensity of galactic space surrounding them into which they can neither “shit out” the Alien, nor expel themselves! The menace concealed within Ash's bionic entrails is the proof he functions as the Company's creature. And the Company is the direst menace of all, a treacherous Leviathan that gnaws away at the vitals of Alien's society.


The Nostromo's crew may be analyzed as a symbolic family. In this context, Dallas, the Father/Captain; appears initially passive, increasingly withdrawn, until he is completely eliminated mid-film. The real source of power within this family system is “Mother,” the computer. “She” and the Company she prefigures are futuristic versions of the classic “bad” witch-mother of myth and fairytale.

The crew is symbiotically dependent upon “Mother,” but her nurturing is at best ineffective, exemplified in the meager sustenance provided by her life support systems in hypersleep. When the crew awaken, her ministrations turn definitively noxious. With full knowledge beforehand, she reroutes them to certain doom on the asteroid. After Ripley exposes her complicity, the female Warrant Officer emerges as the nearest thing to a “good” mother on board. But Ripley can only rescue herself and Jones, the ship's cat, narrowly escaping “Mother's” last revenge, the Nostromo's detonation.

One is told almost nothing about Alien's culture, but one may draw powerful inferences about it from studying the crew. For the most part, they are skilled technicians from a conforming middle or upper-middle class. They observe the outward tenets of contemporary American democracy. No one is a focus of obvious discrimination because of sex, class, or color (Parker is black). Everyone seems well-fed, well-educated, and reasonably well-off.

Differences exist in station, but an air of unauthoritarian informality is maintained, possibly consistent with the Nostromo's status as a merchant rather than a military vessel. Each individual's competence is tacitly respected. Ripley, one notes, perceives Ash's failure to provide more information about the Alien as a function of his untrustworthiness rather than ineffectiveness. The importance of teamwork is implicitly emphasized.

Yet, on closer scrutiny, the Nostromo's democracy smacks of the anthill. The crew address each other by last names only, work efficiently like anonymous cogs. Women are on an exactly equal footing with men to the point of androgyny; they wear no makeup, use the same serviceable clothing as their male counterparts—floppy surgical whites or fatigue uniforms. Although not unattractive, both sexes evince little if any sexual interest.

Except for a few convivial moments, the crew's interactions are impersonal, tense, and slightly abrasive. Hardly a trace of empathy exists, with the notable exception of the “chum” bond between Parker and his taciturn fellow mechanic Brett (their origins seem working-class). Some affection is also elicited by Jones the cat, indicating the capacity for engagement has not withered entirely, if only with the nonhuman environment.

As the Alien's threat escalates, relations aboard grow more alienated. Dallas betrays a nasty paranoid streak. When Ripley tries to discuss her suspicions about Ash, he snaps: “I don't trust anybody!” The crew seem bound to each other only by shared fear and vulnerability. They betray little real mourning for their dead except for Parker's grief when Brett is killed. Even Ripley, who evolves into the most humanized character, never overtly shows more than momentary anguish over her lost comrades.

Kane's maimed funeral rites offer a paradigm of the pervasive dehumanization afflicting the crew. Dallas reads no formal service over him, an intriguing departure from the convention of fifties classics like Forbidden Planet, wherein departed shipmates were assured of a Christian burial in deep space. Instead, the Captain coldly inquires, “Does anyone want to say anything?” and when no answer comes, flushes the corpse out of the airlock as dispassionately as emptying a toilet.

It is strongly implied that the source of the Nostromo's impoverished relationships lies in an overweaning lust for gain, a life-denying greediness that has extended from the highest levels of Alien's world to become rooted within the individual psyche. The theme of insatiable orality is subliminally sounded in the beginning of the film: the camera tracks through the empty mess to a close-up of two perpetually feeding plastic Goony-birds, bobbing up and down over a cup of water.

After the crew awakens, their first conversation involves Parker's noisy demands for a larger share of the profits. He claims that those who do the dirty work below decks are exploited by the technocrats above (shades of Metropolis). When Dallas orders the landing, Parker protests that since Nostromo is a commercial ship he will only undertake a rescue operation for extra pay. He complies after Ash dryly points out that a clause in his contract makes the investigation mandatory “under penalty of total forfeiture of shares. No MONEY!!!”

Parker strikes a keynote of sour appropriativeness that echoes throughout the film. His type is recognizable today, the “I'm all right, Jack” union stalwart, jealous of petty prerogative, spoiling for a strike, his true ideology to the right of Bismarck. But one should not be misled by the coarseness of his rhetoric: those who walk the upper decks share his greediness. Their motives are merely more suavely disguised. Dallas, for instance, does not seem any more touched by mercy in conducting the rescue operation. The Captain is simply a better servant of his employers.

Ingrained personal selfishness may be taken as a pallid reflection of the maniacal greed of the corporate masters ruling Alien's society. They would appear to govern a corrupted galactic democracy that maintains the pretense of libertarian ideals while shamelessly plundering outsiders and covertly abusing its own citizens. The resources of the Nostromo are deployed to exploit a distant planet's natural resources. In past centuries, the lucre from similar missions legitimized subjugation and slaughter of colonial populations; even the death of those enlisted by the exploiters in pursuit of their golden dreams could be justified by appropriate compensation of their survivors. The Nostromo's real mission, and the heartless manner in which it has been contrived, illustrate the depth of the inhuman exploitiveness which has developed out of the earlier terrestrial excesses of capitalism.

It may be extrapolated that the Company actually deciphered the derelict's transmissions some time before the Nostromo's departure. After gleaning that a highly dangerous presence had been encountered by whatever agency responsible for planting the warning beacon, the Company felt that this entity might be useful for its “weapons section.” Perhaps it is one of many battling for galactic hegemony like our Krupps or DuPonts; perhaps it competes with other conglomerates, hawking ordinance across the universe.

Since it constantly seeks a competitive edge, the Company opts to keep its profile low while retrieving the Alien. Sacrificing safety for stealth, it elects not to send a large, well-equipped expedition. Instead, an ordinary merchant vessel is chosen, whose course has already been scheduled to take it near the planetoid on which the acoustic beacon is located.

Hopefully, the beacon site can then be reconnoitered, and the Alien recovered under the guise of a rescue operation, without unduly alerting the suspicions of the crew or potential competitors. After all, investigation of unknown transmissions is required under prevailing maritime law. A rescue operation is what the crew members will probably think they are undertaking to earn their pay, and will perhaps keep thinking if survivors are actually found together with whatever danger lurks on the planetoid.

Profit, always the Company's primary concern, may also dictate its stratagems concretely. Besides preserving security, the use of a merchant vessel saves the major cost of outfitting an expedition. The Company therefore can possibly kill two birds with one stone, acquiring both the Nostromo's cargo and a new weapon. The complete success of the gamble is, of course, contingent on a docile, or at least manageable Alien—never a reliable possibility in the genre since Kong broke out of his chrome-steel chains at the Rialto.

But the mission's complete success is by no means mandatory. The Company has neither issued the crew disintegrator weapons to vaporize the creature, nor the means of creating a force field to contain it—devices well within the capabilities of a faster-than-light technology. One theorizes that the highly limited low-tech defenses allotted to the crew—the best they can jury-rig are primitive prods and flame-throwers—indicate the Company's miserliness, as well as a bias in favor of eliminating the human crew to preserve the Alien (and the cargo).

To cover every contingency, the Company substitutes for the Nostromo's regular Science Officer an android totally obedient to its will, programming Ash and “Mother” to implement its intentions on the mission. One surmises the Company prefers to bring back the Alien without incident, without disclosing the evil uses to which it will be put, if Ash can fog the issue by insisting the creature needs to be studied for its intrinsic research value, or possible humanitarian benefits. But Ash is also empowered if necessary to sacrifice crew, survivors, the Cargo, himself, to return the Alien to the “weapons section.” His tactics are passive-aggressive and obfuscatory until Ripley discovers the conspiracy. Then he explodes into an impersonal fury that quite matches the Alien's.

Conceive, then, that the “family” of the Nostromo is victimized by three monstrosities, within and without. The clearest danger to its integrity is the Alien, but it is monstrous only from its victims' viewpoint. Objectively, there is nothing evil in its nature, for its ceaseless feeding and breeding merely fulfills the imperative of its genetic code—to survive in shifting, inimical environments.

Ash is the second monster, inserted from outside to dwell deceitfully within the family's bosom, preserving group integrity if it will further his aims, but equally capable of destroying the group to protect the Alien. But Ash is no more culpable or intrinsically evil than the creature, for he is not his own man. His morality is pre-programmed, a cog-and-wheels Darwinism engineered by others to make him a tool fit for their dirty tricks. For him, the Alien's purity constitutes a robotic ego-ideal, and he is more than halfway towards achieving it. …

The authentic moral monstrosity of the piece is the Company, and its fellow corporate predators. The Company's materialism has infected the heart, corroded relationships almost beyond redress, struck hurtfully at the center of individual, group, and family identity. Like the family of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Company's feeding upon others to survive and prevail is completely ego-syntonic; it perceives nothing in the least reprehensible about its machinations.


Many critics have theorized that art reflects the psychic tensions generated by a culture's historic, economic, and technological circumstances. Inimical conditions are believed to provoke dark, disintegrative resonances in the psyches of a culture's members; more “affirmative” percepts may evolve whenever favorable environments promote higher levels of cultural integration. Employing formal devices consistent with his or her medium and prevailing stylistics, the artist is said to “capture” the culture's “negative” or “positive” collective psychological valence, a process which occurs largely outside conscious intent.9

The motion picture has been widely heralded as an exquisitely sensitive litmus for collective psychic tensions. Weird cinema offers a particularly sensitive index of disintegrative cultural thrusts, elaborated into a highly idiosyncratic vocabulary of apocalyptic imagery. Both trashy and artful productions of the weird canon therefore deserve serious attention in a politically committed critical practice. Robin Wood observes that, paradoxically, the very lack of seriousness with which horror movies are conceived and received encourages loosening of censorship for maker and viewer. Superficially innocuous, or downright disreputable, weird films may consequently be far more “radical and fundamentally undermining than works of social criticism, which must always concern themselves with the possibility of reforming aspects of a social system whose basic rightness must not be challenged. …”10

In opposition to the liberalism of “establishment” reformists like Capra or Kramer, cruel cinema has been waxing exuberantly nihilistic about sacrosanct American values. Alien is the culmination of this trend: it recapitulates in one concentrated scenario the cruel film's fragmented, or disguised preoccupations with the deterioration of the quality of life—notably of family life, and the degradation of the social contract under capitalism.

The omnipotent monster who preys on puny humans is a common figure in art of earlier phases of cultural disintegration. As the despair of the Dark Ages gave way to the hope of the Gothic Middle Ages, the indomitable Grendel dwindled into the gargoyle, a peripherally removed figure of fun, waiting in the wings to flourish again in darker times.11Alien moves the gargoyle back to center stage. Late twentieth-century corporate capitalism, with its unslakable thirst to propagate its vast institutions, is nominated as the sinister force which has reincarnated the omnipotent beast.

The condemnation of a callous, consumerist ethos, obliquely set forth in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Romero Dead opera, now emerges undisguised. The Company, playing out its intergalactic scenario of contemporary corporate smash-and-grab, is emphatically labelled villainous; the Alien recognized as avatar of its unholy scavenging.

The script implies that the Alien is also a warning to the Company cast in its own image. For had the creature been brought to Earth, a dreadful retribution would surely have followed as it fed upon the flesh of its rescuers and bred its own kind with Malthusian vigor. Ripley's courage narrowly averts the extinction of her culture. It is left moot whether she will unmask the Company's perfidy after her return, which might precipitate a galactic Watergate or even send interplanetary revolutionaries to the barricades.

Several critics have suggested that Alien is agitprop in genre masquerade. Lyn Davis and Tom Genelli believe the film functions “as a kind of wakeup call to present day society … to shock us out of our psychic ‘hypersleep.’”12 Our “technological society” breeds environmental and economic ills as numerous as the Alien's mutations because “our left brain ‘mothers,’ the computers and the technocrats who run them, are unable to generate what is needed to solve these problems. …”

Davis and Genelli categorize the Alien as the dernier cri of the “masculine principle, total aggression without emotion or regard to life. …” The answer to the phallic expansionism it symbolizes is the affirmation of “the conservation instinct which we need to reacknowledge, to reincorporate within our collective human body.”13

This “feminine principle” is epitomized by Alien's heroine. Ripley, as avatar of Kali, the Mother Goddess, perceives the danger of letting Kane and the other explorers back aboard; she is ready to sacrifice a few lives that millions may live. She searches out the Company's scheming, and exposes Ash's empty “fathering” of the Alien. She jeopardizes her own escape to rescue Jones the cat, demonstrating her empathy with the nonhuman manifestations of the life force.

I found the Davis-Genelli arguments doubtful in 1980; they seem even less helpful in reassessing Alien and the problematics of cruel cinema in 1986. Several decades of work in psychoanalysis and feminist studies enjoin wariness about erecting gendered “principles” as eternal spiritual/biological verities. Beyond their essentialism, Davis and Genelli have fundamentally erred—perhaps falling prey to wishful thinking—in ascribing to Alien's creators a degree of mindfulness that simply doesn't sort with its deliberately traumatizing aspects. Alien remains a marvelous masterpiece of the genre. But it also replicates the uncompromising hurtfulness, the amoral “cool” of Psycho and its cruel inheritors, while teasing the audience with a politically “engaged” facade.

Robin Wood remarks that contemporary horror cinema brings “to a focus a spirit of negativity, an undifferentiated lust for destruction, that seems to be not far below the surface of the modern collective consciousness. …”14 Not content with mocking the values of its characters as it tears their flesh, I submit that cruel cinema assails its audience with that same spirit of negativity, destructiveness, and exploitation Davis and Genelli would have us believe Alien decries. And what vast profit is garnered in the process—shades of the Company!

The past few decades have witnessed the spread of violence throughout American culture, perpetrated within the family, on our streets, sanctioned at the highest levels of government, whether in the napalming of children or in subsidizing foreign torturers. The show of overt violence in media has become a commonplace never conceived of in the worst excesses of yellow journalism. Television news passes equably from the commercial break to the unsparing depiction of the atrocities of war and urban crime. We have gradually become inured, desensitized to violence; its victims grow increasingly “thing-like,” exciting only the briefest twitch of pity or horror before the bloody scene dissolves to the hawking of toothpaste and designer jeans.

It seems to me that cruel cinema merely takes up where the TV screen leaves off, with a greater cachet to treat characters and audience as dumb objects to be exploited towards enormous gain. In the course of transforming the collective angst bred out of a corrupt and corrupting capitalism, the creators of cruel movies, wittingly or otherwise, have allowed their medium to become tainted by the sordid practices of their bête noire. The creators of Alien have perhaps beheld the greedy beast lurking in its lair more accurately; but then, to paraphrase Blake, they have become what they beheld.

In sum, films like Alien cannot legitimately be recommended as polemics against capitalism. They should instead be properly recognized as collective artistic derivatives of its depredations. With rare exceptions, their means of production and, inevitably their ideology are dictated by corporate parameters. At best, these texts constitute sullied jeremiads. They dimly apprehend the primordial selfishness infecting late twentieth-century capitalism, but can only recommend convenient escapist, individualistic solutions.15 At worst, they are signatory of its callous manipulations of our fellow creatures and our environment, which have brought us to the brink of universal ambiguity, destructiveness, and despair.


  1. Harvey R. Greenberg, The Movies on Your Mind (New York: Saturday Review Press/Dutton, 1975), p. 198.

  2. Greenberg, p. 204.

  3. Robin Wood, “The Return of the Repressed,” Film Comment (August 1978), pp. 25-32.

  4. Wood, p. 32.

  5. Special Alien issue, Cinéfantastique 9, no. 1 (1979).

  6. Daniel Dervin, “The Primal Scene in Film Comedy and Science Fiction,” Film/Psychology Review 4, no. 1 (1980), pp. 115-147.

  7. See the Alien issue of Cinéfantastique.

  8. Dervin, p. 131.

  9. Walter H. Abell, The Collective Dream in Art: A Psycho-Historical Theory of Culture Based on Relations between the Arts, Psychology, and the Social Sciences (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957).

  10. Wood, p. 32.

  11. Abell.

  12. Lyn Davis and Tom Genelli, “Alien: A Myth of Survival,” Film/Psychology Review 4, no. 2 (1980), p. 240.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Wood, p. 32.

  15. For a more extensive Marxist critique, the reader is referred to the Science Fiction Studies Symposium on Alien, Jackie Byars, Moderator, Science Fiction Studies 7 (1980), pp. 278-305. See also Douglas Kellner, “Blade Runner: A Diagnostic Critique,” Jump Cut 29 (1984), pp. 6-8.

An earlier version of this essay appeared as “The Fractures of Desire” in Psychoanalytic Review 70 (1983), pp. 241-267.

Peter Fitting (essay date November 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7369

SOURCE: Fitting, Peter. “Futurecop: The Neutralization of Revolt in Blade Runner.Science-Fiction Studies 14, no. 3 (November 1987): 340-54.

[In the following essay, Fitting explores the contrasting messages regarding the use and misuse of technology in the film Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel on which the film was based.]

My grand theme—who is human and who only appears (masquerades) as human?

Philip K. Dick, Comment (1976) on “Second Variety”

Is it still necessary to state that not technology, not technique, not the machine are the engineers of repression, but the presence, in them, of the masters who determine their number, their life span, their power, their place in life, and the need for them? Is it still necessary to repeat that science and technology are the great vehicles of liberation, and that it is only their use and restriction in the repressive society which makes them into vehicles of domination?

Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation

1. The look of the future in Blade Runner (1982) is what strikes us first of all about the film—a look unlike the high-tech visions of so much SF in its more realistic mix of technological advance and continuing decay. Indeed, the visual power and integrity of this glimpse of the future has been the focus of much of the critical writing about the film.1 In the following remarks, I would like to focus on the actual putting into images of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), for this recording, from novel to film, distorts the novel's ethical message while foregrounding the tracking and “retirement” of the escaped replicants. I am not criticizing the film for what it omits from the novel per se, but for its conversion of a moral dilemma into a cynical legitimization of the status quo.

Without going into a full discussion here, the novel's ethical dimension lies not only in Dick's “grand theme”—“who is human and who only appears (masquerades) as human?”—but in the empathic spiritual experience of “Mercerism” which is dropped from the film.2 The adherent grasps handles attached to an “empathy box” and then experiences Mercer's climb up a hill as he is pelted by stones, thereby joining in the struggle against entropy and the “tomb world” (18:140-41):

[He] gradually experienced a waning of the living room in which he stood. … He found himself, instead, as always before, entering into the landscape of drab hill, drab sky. And at the same time he no longer witnessed the climb of the elderly man. His own feet now scraped, sought purchase, among the familiar loose stones. …

He had crossed over in the usual perplexing fashion; physical merging—accompanied by mental and spiritual identification—with Wilbur Mercer had reoccurred. As it did for everyone who at this moment clutched the handles, either here on Earth or on one of the colony planets. He experienced them, the others, incorporated the babble of their thoughts, heard in his own brain the noise of their many individual existences. They—and he—cared about one thing: this fusion of their mentalities oriented their attention on the hill, the climb, the need to ascend.


Empathy, as we shall see in a moment, is the key to the novel.

Most movie-goers are familiar with the story of the “blade runner” Rick Deckard, who is forced out of retirement for one last job—to find and “terminate” four advanced androids (“replicants”) who have rebelled and returned illegally to Earth. In Los Angeles in the year 2019, in a world in which pollution and radiation have apparently caused the death of many of the other living creatures on the planet, human technology has made it possible to copy the nearly extinct animals of the recent past. A similar technology makes it possible to build near-perfect copies of human beings. (“More human than Human” is the motto of the replicants' builder, the Tyrell Corporation.)

These androids were apparently developed to replace men and women in space under conditions in which humans could not function—in a vacuum, for instance, or in extreme cold or heat. While animals and other “lower” life-forms on Earth are presumably duplicated out of nostalgia and guilt, because the original terrestrial animals are almost extinct, there are few reasons given why anyone would go to the expense and trouble of developing a robot which could pass for a human being—especially since this resemblance is the source of considerable anxiety about androids passing as human, an anxiety which generates the plot in both the novel and the film. There is some explanation in the novel, as we learn when Deckard objects to the builder about the development of androids which are almost indistinguishable from humans. Eldon Rosen (renamed Tyrell in the film) replies in strict business terms: “We produced what the colonists wanted. … We followed the time-honored principle underlying every commercial venture. If our firm hadn't made these progressively more human types, other firms in the field would have” (5:41).3 Whatever the explanation, the robot and its ancestors and relatives have been used—at least since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein—as a figure for collective anxieties about the dangers of science and technology. At the same time, the robot has often been taken positively, as a figure of the labor-saving possibilities of technology (as summed up in the fiction of Isaac Asimov).4

2. As is well known, Philip K. Dick used the figure of the robot, and more precisely that of the android, to raise a number of issues, including that of the original and the copy in the age of mechanical reproduction. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? deals with what could be labelled the “blurring of the human and the machine.” Here Dick walks a very fine line between attempting to elicit sympathy for the androids (the robot as metaphor of the oppressed and the exploited) and using the android to remind us of the growing risks to our humanity in an increasingly mechanized society.

In the novel, the androids are not so much not-human as inhuman. As we have seen, the crucial difference is the ability to feel empathy:

He had wondered … precisely why an android bounced helplessly about when confronted by an empathy-measuring test. Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida. …


Empathy is not only the key to distinguishing the human from the non-human (by measuring the ability to feel empathy for other living creatures—the “Voigt-Kampf Empathy Test”), but also, as already noted, the basis for “Mercerism,” the inexplicable empathic mystical experience which is omitted from the film. The androids lack empathy; they cannot participate in the Mercer experience, and in the novel they are eager to expose it as a fraud (18:136). But their inhumanity is especially apparent in the manifestations of the replicants' cruelty and indifference, as summed up in a crucial scene—absent from the film—in which John Isidore (the model for JF) watches in horror as the androids torture and kill a spider (18:135-40).5

Nor is this the only instance in the novel of a rejection of the androids and what they represent, as can most explicitly be seen in the changes to the character of Rachel. The relationship between Rachel and Deckard reflects and increases his growing empathy for the androids he is expected to “retire,” but in the novel Rachael (sic) explains that she has gone to bed with him so as to make it impossible for him to retire any more androids, a strategy which she has already used with nine bounty hunters before him (17:131-33).6 In the film, Rachel does not set out to seduce Deckard. On the contrary, he is the sexual aggressor, while she is frightened and vulnerable. She did not know that she was not human until Deckard gave her the empathy test and now she is afraid, confused, and lost. She does not ally herself with the other androids—as does Rachael in the novel—but with the one human who tells her the truth. (She in fact saves his life by killing the replicant Leon.) In the novel Pris and Rachael are identical models, made from the same “prototype”—a characteristic which again underlines that the androids are not human. Although Deckard cannot “kill” Rachael, he does kill her “duplicate,” Pris, even as “it” attempts to use its resemblance to Rachael to kill him (19:145-46).

Despite Deckard's—and the reader's—hesitations and growing sympathy for the androids, then, a number of incidents, including their torture of the spider, their attempts to undermine Mercerism, and their inability to participate in that empathic experience, as well as the calculatedness of Rachael's seductive behavior, all make clear in the novel that the androids are meant to be understood as evil and inhuman. Yet the novel ends on an ambiguous note, with Deckard's continuing doubts about what he has done. The film, on the other hand, eliminates the ambiguity and doubts underlying Deckard's position through the happy ending, even as it blurs the reasons why the androids must be retired.

Although the replicants occasionally demonstrate superhuman physical abilities, there are few suggestions in the film of their underlying non-human nature. Instead they are obsessed with becoming human. To counteract attempts to return to Earth and live as humans, the replicants of the film have been built with a “fail-safe”—a four-year lifespan.7 For this reason, they have come to Earth to learn how to control the aging process. More interestingly, and in ways which are not present in the novel, they are preoccupied with overcoming their non-humanity—witness their attempts to construct for themselves an individual human past, as summed up in the packs of family photographs which they collect and treasure. Roy, in appearance the coldest and least human of the four replicants, is also the one who thinks the most about his incomplete humanity. The last of Deckard's “assignments,” Roy will die not because the bounty-hunter is able to retire him, but because his own brief lifespan has run out. Moreover, when he could kill Deckard, Roy instead lets him live, as a gesture towards the life he has only begun to know. As Deckard says in the voice-over:

I don't know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life—anybody's life. My life.

All he'd wanted were the same answers, the rest of us want. Where do I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?

Seen from this perspective, there is a fundamental contradiction at the core of the film; for in the novel, even if it is not completely successful, there was an ethical juxtaposition of the human and the mechanical, a valorization of life and the living and a rejection of the machine; and this polarization between good and evil legitimized and explained the necessity of “retiring” runaway robots. Thus when Deckard consults Mercer, he is told that although all life deserves respect, he must continue to hunt and terminate the escaped androids: “What you are doing has to be done” (19:145). The film, on the other hand, wants it both ways, and at times the narrative of the replicants' struggle to survive threatens to overwhelm the viewers' sympathy with Deckard. There are, for instance, several long scenes in the film which focus entirely on the replicants; and there is, of course, Roy's death, to which I shall return. Indeed, according to Dick, the changes in the presentation of the androids constituted the principal difference between his novel and the film:

[In the novel] the replicants are deplorable … cruel, cold and heartless. They have no empathy … and don't care what happens to other creatures. They are essentially less than human.

[Ridley] Scott regarded them as supermen without wings. …8

Interestingly enough, there is an even more surprising and revealing analogy that the film momentarily brings up to describe the status and meaning of the replicants. Early on, Blade Runner explicitly draws a similarity between the androids and another group of Americans who attempted to escape from their enslavement and “pass” for human: when Deckard says (in the voice-over narration) that his boss, because he calls the replicants “skin jobs,” is the kind of person who in an earlier day “would have called black men niggers.” Although the film does not return to this comparison (however, before he dies, Roy says to Deckard: “quite an experience to live in fear; that's what it is to be a slave”), it clearly points to the contradictory treatment of the androids in the film. This contradiction becomes sharper if we attempt to pursue the analogy between robots and slaves, for it would be difficult for any but the most racist viewer to continue to sympathize with Deckard if the hunting and killing of the replicants were transformed into the tracking of runaway blacks. In that case, sympathy would clearly and unequivocally lie with the escaped slaves from the beginning. But, as it is, the film retains its ambiguity: the replicants both draw our sympathy and yet, somehow deserve to be killed; or rather, it is only when they are dead that they no longer deserve to be killed! This contradiction suggests that the meaning of the film, unlike the novel, no longer lies with an interpretation of the ethical opposition between the androids and “living” creatures.

3. Instead, the narrative of the escaped androids, it seems to me, provided Scott with an opportunity to display once again filmic images of death and killing. Psychologists write about the effects of media violence on the spectator, but they address less frequently the causes of that violence, the needs that it satisfies and that propel it.9 I mention this, although I disagree with much of that research, because in the case of the most developed domain of the psychological study of effects, apart from advertising—namely, the effects of pornography—one can immediately identify, in however direct or indirect a fashion, the origins of this “need” with sexual drives. But violence? Many of you reading this may have explanations for the increasing need for pictorial and filmic representations of violence, but its origins are not as evident as with pornography, however much you may think of pornography as a debased or distorted form of human sexuality. What, we might ask, is the need for the portrayal of violence a distortion or debasement of? Without attempting to answer that question yet, I am arguing that in Blade Runner the actual hunting and “termination” of the replicants is but another version of the myriad contemporary depictions of hunting and killing other humans. Here the excuse for that display of killing is to be found in an SF device: the representations of violence with which we are already familiar, as seen in the narratives of cops, sheriffs, and soldiers who are only “doing their duty,” is here justified as the hunting down and “termination” of rebellious machines who also happen to look like real men and women. This is but an aspect of what I consider one of the fundamental differences between SF writing and SF film, a difference having to do with the increasing popularity of special effects since the success of 2001 (1968): namely, the foregrounding of visual pyrotechnics for their own sake, as opposed to SF's long claim—however restricted the number of works which actually achieved such a goal—to be a literature of ideas. This should not be taken as either a definition of what SF should be nor a condemnation of the specular vocation of film. I may enjoy such spectacles; but liking is not enough, and it cannot be a substitute for an explanation. Without going into a discussion of such recent SF films as Road Warrior (1981) or The Terminator (1985). I would point out that films such as those are much more straightforward in their justification for the violence portrayed. Blade Runner, on the other hand, pretends that it is not really stimulating the desire for representations of violence since, after all, these are only machines. Moreover, as we shall see in a moment, some critics argue that violence and selfishness are transcended by the film's ending. Nonetheless, I am arguing that the foregrounding of violence and the change in the nature of the androids subtly and cynically distorts the major themes of Dick's novel by catering to violent escapist fantasies.

4. Let us return, then, to the question of what produces the need for these representations of violence and to the link between that need and the figure of the android. The robot, as I have already pointed out, has long been understood as our symbolic alter ego—a manifestation of the desire for liberation from toil and drudgery and front human frailty and imperfection, and also as the expression of an increasing awareness of our diminished status in the technological society we have built. The androids of Blade Runner suggest both of these contradictory possibilities: they offer a glimpse of a liberated and empowered humanity, which could be realized thanks to the wonderful possibilities of technology; but so too, they indicate the terrible price of that seductive empowerment in the substitution for our humanity of the qualities and characteristics of the machine.

Expressed this way, the film's theme seems faithful to Dick's novel, but this does not explain Scott's use of violence. Although Deckard carries out the retirements with increasing reluctance, the film presents those moments in much more vivid and graphic detail than does the novel. Indeed, through the lingering depiction of the termination of the four androids—particularly the two female replicants—the film substantially changes the initial Dickian theme. In the transfer from book to film, then, a new element is introduced which can only be dealt with through the spectacle of violence.

Nonetheless, the scene in which Roy lets Deckard live has led some critics to argue for the “transcendence” of both characters at the end, through their “renunciation of violence” (Kellner et al.: 7).

Deckard must put aside his distrust of women, must transcend his emotional aloofness, must finally make the ultimate commitment—to give of himself and his humanity. To his credit, Blade Runner resolves its issues with the specific science fiction context it creates. Man merges with his creation. This new Adam and his genetically engineered Eve will become first father and mother of a new species. And they—we—have an ambiguous, ambivalent, violent rebel angel to thank for it.

If Roy Batty is Satan, Adam, and Christ all rolled into one, and Deckard is the human recipient of the replicant's redemptive/heroic mission, what are we left to conclude? Mainly that the allusions to Paradise Lost, to Frankenstein, and to other works similarly concerned with the question of what it means to be a person, allow Blade Runner itself to participate in the redemptive process. … The replicants are products of technology and imagination … works of art made in our human image. Art, we may understand, can take on a life of its own beyond what its maker intended, but such a life can be positive. Such a work can possess innate qualities that improve our lives and make us whole. Art, whether it is the creation of ‘replicants’ or the creation of Blade Runner, holds out the possibility of transcendence.

(Dresser: 178)

In opposition to such a reading, I am arguing that despite the scene in question, the film's meaning is a profoundly cynical and reactionary one. The hero's distaste for his job of killing escaped androids is contradicted by the film's sensuous and prolonged fascination with the depiction of those killings, even as his doubts are simplistically resolved in the happy ending. Three characters supposedly transcend their condition: the two “machines”—Rachel and Roy—and the human bounty-hunter, Deckard.

What Roy tells Deckard he has seen during his brief life does not completely confirm the renunciation of violence:

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched sea beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Time to die.

Roy spares Deckard in a recognition of life, and the above words point to his sense of beauty; but his first example—an expression of Scott's own aesthetics of violence—is a scene from the battlefield. How does this beauty differ from the slow-motion death of Zhora as she crashes through a series of plate glass windows after Deckard shoots her in the back?10

More importantly, this argument for redemption would be more convincing if Roy's death were the final scene, but it is followed by the flight of Deckard and Rachel into the sunset. It is interesting to see how the critics explain this final resolution: Dresser, above, writes that Deckard has “transcended his emotional aloofness … [making] the ultimate commitment” (p. 178); while for Kellner et al. this “symbiosis of humans and machines” is an indication that the film is not technophobic (p. 7): “The flight to an empathetic and romantic interior space away from the external realm of public callousness suggests a general human aversion to capitalist market values” (p. 8). I read the significance of the final scene very differently. Deckard is rewarded by the system he serves for his successful suppression of an armed revolt; while Rachel transcends her machine status by becoming a “real” woman—something which it is increasingly difficult for flesh and blood women to accept—namely, a submissive sex object, subject to her man's wishes and desires. Farfetched? The one exception to the absence of reasons why these machines should be built to resemble humans in the film lies in the replicant Pris's status as “a basic pleasure model”—an advanced sex doll. The importance of this latter theme in SF, as epitomized in Jeff Renner's “The Shortest Science Fiction Love Story Ever Written” (“Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Boy Builds Girl”) as well as the fact that the other replicants have been built with specific functions, allow us to ask what other functions Rachel has been given.

The happy ending as well as the resolution which is identified by Dresser as “transcendence” have in this regard another meaning. In both film and novel Deckard carries on until all of the escaped replicants are dead. In the novel, these retirements were the source of the novel's ethical concerns:

‘Don't you see? There is no salvation.

‘Then what's this for?’ Rick demanded. ‘What are you for?’

‘To show you,’ Wilbur Mercer said, ‘that you aren't alone. I am here with you and always will be. Go and do your task, even though you know it's wrong. … You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.’

(15:119; italics in original. See also 22:158.)

In the film, however, in opposition to the somber ending of the novel. Deckard is not only rewarded for the risks he has undergone and for his reluctant exercise of violence in the maintenance of the status quo; the happy ending also absolves him of his doubts.

Finally, the possible redemption of the characters—human or machine—is made possible only by Roy's convenient death: he transcends his machine nature not by letting Deckard live, but by dying. The argument for transcendence (based on the renunciation of violence) falls apart if we ask what would have happened if Roy had not died (whether he spared Deckard's life or not). Deckard—or someone else—would have had to kill him. If Deckard had refused, he would not have been rewarded with the convenient overlooking of Rachel's continuing existence. She, too, would have been terminated.

Roy's renunciation and transcendence resemble the death of the villain in other narratives who repents as he lies dying. But as the comparison with black slaves suggests, Roy is not a villain. Although the replicants/escaped slaves analogy is made early in the film, the viewers' reactions towards them are carefully orchestrated so that we only fully sympathize with them once they are all dead! Roy's acquiescence and death remind us of the necessity of choosing between acceptance and rejection of the world as it is. Critics like Dresser speak of Roy's redemption insofar as it conforms to Christian salvation, which involves renunciation of attempts to change a flawed and oppressive world in return for a promised reward in the hereafter. The dove which Roy releases is a symbol of his soul, which ascends to heaven even as his body “dies.” The character who represents an active threat to the status quo cannot be allowed to live, but in exchange for his voluntary death, Roy is offered a reward “greater than life itself”: forgiveness for his mistaken rebellion and the promise of salvation in another life. On one level, critics like Dresser are right about Roy's transcendence in the film, but they have avoided spelling out its full meaning as an acceptance of the world as it is, and they have overlooked its violation of Dick's life and work.

Thus the question of our fascination with representations of violence is, in a sense, a false problem which points to a more profound deformation of the novel's original moral dilemma. In displaying at length the termination of the rebellious slaves, the film legitimizes the use of violence in defense of the status quo, even if that world is repressive and unjust. The film's violence can be seen, at least at the beginning, as the displaced expression and release of the spectator's anger at the abuses and waste of the present system. But this anger is gradually transferred in the film, from the wealthy—like Tyrell—to the exploited victims who dare to rebel. The robot workers who revolt against a system which exploits them and even denies them the status of “human” are hunted and killed with the complicity of the spectator. Yet somehow, because the most vicious of them, in his own death, still aches with the pain of all that is denied him, the film is read as the expression of a generalized human transcendence.

This is the story, then, of the trajectory from book to film, a trajectory whose implications Dick himself resisted. The film's producers offered him $400,000 if he would agree to suppress the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and allow it to be replaced by the screenplay of Blade Runner. Dick refused.11

5. Much popular art serves to maintain the status quo by stimulating our repressed hopes and fears; and then, rather than permitting those awakened feelings to become knowledge or praxis, it sets out to defuse this nascent recognition of social contradiction by redirecting and draining off those threatening emotions. These representations of violence provide incomplete satisfaction for the anger and frustration we feel when confronted with a world of plenty in which science and technology and the fruits of human labor are squandered in the intensifying race for new forms of destruction. Blade Runner co-opts and redirects our rage from the political and economic structures responsible for this exploitation and waste to its victims. The film does this by merging in a single figure—that of the escaped replicants—both the machines which are used to exploit us and all those who would refuse and rebel against that system of exploitation. For although the androids are the target of that anger in the film, they are not its real cause. Our frustration and alienation stem not from the increasing presence of machines in our daily lives, but from the imperatives of production and consumption which those machines serve and from the human misuse and misapplication of technology. This can be seen in the fact that the characters—whether human or android—are not in control of their lives in the film. Deckard is forced out of retirement to hunt and retire replicants against his will, while the androids themselves are nothing more than slaves; and Rachel is the product of a cynical psycho-technological experiment. Paradoxically, the film identifies and nourishes our fantasies of refusal and revolt against a system which uses and manipulates us, by allowing us to empathize for a time with the four androids and their desperate rebellion. But as they are retired one by one, the film forcibly reminds us of the futility of struggle. Our frustration and resentment towards an order which increasingly turns to machines to exploit and control us is then displaced, from the human and societal source of that exploitation, to its victims, who are punished for their refusal of the impossible conditions of their existence. As opposed to the novel, which ends on a note of resignation with Deckard's acceptance of personal responsibility for human suffering, the film is a cynical denial of that message and of the major themes of Dick's book. Resistance to the status quo, however unjust the existing system is, will be punished, the film tells us, while the willingness to participate in the forcible maintenance of inequality and exploitation will be amply rewarded. The film ends with our first look at the world outside the dark, rainy city, as Deckard and his reward—his very own personal android, a grateful and subservient—and ageless!—sex doll, fly off into a Playboy sunset.


  1. The look of the film has interested critics in two ways: (a) for its portrayal of the near future “the densest, most arresting futuristic society in screen history” (Dempsey: 34); “a future city which perpetuates corporate capitalism's distinguishing features—urban decay, commodification, overcrowding, highly skewed disparities of wealth and poverty, and authoritarian policing. The film's urban images present a world where advanced capitalism's worst features have coalesced to produce a polluted, overpopulated city in a society controlled by giant corporations” (Kellner et al.: 6); and (b) as a blending of the conventions of SF and “film noir” (see Doll & Faller and Dresser).

  2. Although many of the critiques of the film mention the novel, there is little extended comparison. The one exception is Wingrove's brief entry in his Film Source Book. On the other hand, Dick's critics have paid even less attention to the novel, accepting Suvin's judgment (p. 93) that it is one of the author's “outright failures.” Androids is discussed in Robinson (pp. 90-93) and in Warrick ([1980]. pp. 223-28; revised ed. [1983], pp. 205-09).

    Despite my assertion that moral issues in the novel have been pushed to the background in the film, some critics do call attention to philosophical issues, particularly Dresser's “Science Fiction and Transcendence”—to which I shall return—and Telotte's “Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film,” in which he studies a “number of recent films which take as their major concern or as an important motive the potential doubling of the human body and thus the literal creation of a human artifice” (p. 44).

    The development of Mercerism is an opening to the increasing use of transcendental themes by Dick in his late novels.

  3. As opposed to this profit-motive explanation, Telotte argues in terms of the subjective motives of the replicants' creators:

    Tyrell, it seems, is moved solely by his fascination with creating ever more perfect copies, replicants which can defy those tests for humanity which have developed in this future world. … Sebastian has turned his engineering skills to no less subjective end [sic], the task of filling his lonely life with manufactured ‘friends’. …

    (p. 48)

    The important point—central to Telotte's article—lies in his attempt to analyze the fascination with “doubling”:

    As Arendt noted [in The Human Condition]—and as our accomplishments in genetic engineering every day point up—we already possess the potential which science fiction films have so frequently described, that for crafting artificial versions of man. What these films hope to forestall is the dark obverse of this capacity, that for making human nature artificial as well.

    (p. 51)

    Corporate interests and machines which pass as humans are also an important element in Ridley Scott's earlier SF film, Alien (1979), where the science officer of the Nostromo is discovered to be an android and to have been acting against the interests of the humans on board. (See, on this matter, my 1980 essay and that by Thomas Byers in the present issue).

  4. Without conducting a full review of the history of robots and androids (and their cousin, the computer), several points should be made. Even as the figure of the robot may point to actual technological developments, it is clear that it means much more. In general, one could speak of an opposition between positive images of the robot as the visible sign of the triumph of reason, the Enlightenment dream of human progress, as well as a more immediate symbol of the liberation from drudgery; and negative visions, which, at least since Frankenstein (1818), have paralleled those same beliefs and hopes in technological progress.

    While genealogies are always difficult (and there will always be someone with an earlier example), for many SF readers the theme of a robot “passing” for a human was introduced in Isaac Asimov's I, Robot (1950), and in particular in the story “Evidence” (1946). Set in the 21st century in the context of the anxieties of those who distrusted the increasing use of ever more sophisticated robots and computers, the story revolves around a politician who is accused of being a robot. In the larger context of I, Robot, this story is significant for its discussion of the moral dimension of the “Three Laws of Robotics” when juxtaposed to human morality.

    Asimov's own positive attitudes about the liberating potential of technology are summed up in the final story (“Evitable Conflict”), which depicts a utopian future where the world is run by the “Machines”—the extensions of the “positronic brains” of the robots. (Note that in the early 1940s, there was still no commonly accepted word for the computer. It is usually associated with the work of Eckert and Mauchly and the development of the ENIAC [Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator] in 1946, followed by the UNIVAC [Universal Automatic Computer] in 1951. Asimov saw that the upper limit to the development of sophisticated robots lay in the area of what is now referred to as “artificial intelligence,” so he posited the development of a “positronic brain” for his robots.)

    Asimov's optimism is important in light of the shift in attitudes towards computers over the next decades. Along with a general distrust of technology following the use of the atomic bomb against the Japanese, the computer came to be one of our most powerful images of government control (Fitting, 1979; 1980). And now, in the 1980s, there has been again a reversal in attitudes towards the computer, whose potentiality for control is increasingly subverted: in films like Tron (1982), War Games (1983), and the British television series Max Headroom; and of course in the writing of the so-called “cyber-punks,” beginning with Vernor Vinge's True Names (1984) and reaching its apogee in the writing of William Gibson (Neuromancer [1985], Count Zero [1986], and the anthology Burning Chrome [1986]). This is the subject of a book in itself. For a discussion of the first two periods, see for instance, Patricia Warrick's book.

    In the context of the robot as a figure for the liberation from drudgery, the rebellion of the machines in Androids should remind us that there is also another side to the meaning of the robot: as a figure of the increasing roboticization of the work process, not only in the increasing use of robots in the work place, but in the development of work processes—as epitomized by the assembly line—which rob the worker of individual choice by transforming him/her into a cog in the machine—as in Chaplin's classic film Modern Times (1936). The standard analysis of this transformation of the work process in the 20th century and the alienation of the worker is Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1974.) For an application of this issue to the robots of Asimov, see Portelli. In their article on Blade Runner, Kellner et al. briefly raise this issue.

  5. “The android, which is the unauthentic human, the mere reflex machinery, is unable to experience empathy”: Dick's 1978 comments (quoted in Dick [1987], V: 389) on his “The Little Black Box” (1964), a story which deals with Mercerism. For a further discussion of these themes, see Dick's Vancouver speech, “The Android and the Human”; see also the anthology of many of Dick's robot stories edited by Warrick and Greenberg.

  6. I do not have the space here to discuss the increasing appearance of misogynist themes in Dick's writing—a theme which his critics, myself included, have avoided for too long. For a novel which also mixes a “predatory” female and a sympathetic humanoid robot, see his We Can Build You (1972). For a discussion of this issue in Blade Runner, see Barr.

  7. The expression “fail-safe” is used during the briefing on the escaped replicants by Deckard's boss. The “andys” of the novel also have a four-year lifespan, but it is presented as a by-product of their manufacture rather than as an intentional limitation, and as such, it plays no part in the androids' motivations in the novel. There is some confusion in the film on this subject, for although Tyrell tells Roy that he cannot reverse the process, Rachel has been built with “no termination date.”

  8. Quoted in Sammon, p. 26. So far as I am aware, this particular difference is dealt with in only one of the articles on Blade Runner, David Wingrove's entry in his Source Book:

    … the main difference, and the one that subverts the central theme of the novel, is in the treatment of the androids. Dick makes it clear that his androids, no matter how sympathetic some of them appear, are radically evil because they lack souls. The movie, ironically, takes a more humanistic approach to the androids, or Replicants, and presents them as victims of human evil. The Replicants are capable of murder but even so they emerge, by the end of the film, as morally as well as physically superior to their human hunters.

    (p. 40)

    In his brief account, Wingrove goes no further in his explanation or interpretation, but it is interesting that in such a short account he would stress a point which most of the other critics simply overlooked. I shall return to this in my conclusion.

  9. For an accurate sample of recent psychological studies of the effects of representations of violence, see the essays collected in Bryant & Zillman. For a critique of this research, see Thelma McCormak's “Making Sense of the Research on Pornography,” in Burstyn, pp. 181-205. For a sensible discussion of the entire question, see Fraser's Violence in the Arts. Finally, for discussions of the question of how film moves the spectator, see the articles by Dyer and Mulvey.

    My own approach is based on the work of Fredric Jameson, most specifically his “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture” and on the discussion of '50s monster movies at the end of his Marxism and Form (pp. 404-06). There, in a gloss on Susan Sontag's “Imagination of Disaster,” he argues that the viewer's relationship to these films was caught up in contradictory feelings of anger and anticipation—anger at the society in which she or he was imprisoned and exploited, an anger which vented itself in the monsters' rampages. At the same time, glimpses of a repressed alternative could be seen both in the collective struggle against the monsters and in the figure of the scientist as an image of a non-alienated kind of work.

  10. There is little depiction of the actual killing or “retirement” of the androids in the novel (Polkov, 8:65; Luft, 12:91; the Battys, 19:147; and Rachel 19:145). The increase in violence from novel to film cannot be explained by arguing that film, by its visual nature, emphasizes violence in the way a novel does not. Compare the violence in Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury with the 1953 film version, where the situation is almost reversed: the protracted brutality of the novel is almost completely missing from that film.

    Moreover, not all violent films “aestheticize” violence in the way Bonnie and Clyde,Clockwork Orange, or The Wild Bunch do. A test case might be Pasolini's version of De Sade's 120 Days of Sodom (Salo, 1975). For a sympathetic overview of low budget “gore (violence) and sexploitation” films, see the special issue of Re/Search, “Incredibly Strange Films” (1986). For a powerful analysis of the progressive political dimension of horror films, see Robin Wood's “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in Britton et al., pp. 7-28.

  11. Sammon quotes Dick (p. 26) as follows:

    I was offered a great deal of money, and a cut in the merchandizing rights, if I would do a novelization of the screenplay, or if I would let someone like Alan Dean Foster come in and do it. … My Agent figured that I would make about $400,000 from this deal.

    But part of this package required the suppression of my original novel, and I said no. … They got nasty again. They began to threaten to withdraw the logo rights—we wouldn't be able to say that my book was the novel on which Blade Runner was based. … We remained adamant, though, and stuck to our guns, and they eventually caved in. In re-releasing the original novel I only made about $12,500. But I kept my integrity. And my book.

Works Cited

Ashley, Mike. The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Lists. London, 1982.

Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. 1950; rpt. NY: Signet, 1964.

Barr, Marleen. “Metahuman ‘Kipple’; Or, Do Male Movie Makers Dream of Electric Women?: Specieism and Sexism in Blade Runner,” forthcoming in a critical anthology on Dick's work, ed. Judith Kerman (Bowling Green Popular Press).

Britton, Andrew, & Richard Lippe, Tony Williams, & Robin Wood. American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film. Toronto, 1979.

Bryant, Jennings, & Dolf Zillman. Perspectives on Media Effects. Hillsdale, NJ: 1986.

Burstyn, Varda, ed. Women against Censorship. Toronto, 1985.

Chevrier, Yves. “Blade Runner; or, The Sociology of Anticipation,” SFS, 11 (1984): 50-60.

De Lauretis, Teresa, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington, IN: 1984.

Dempsey, Michael. “Blade Runner,Film Quarterly, 36, no. 2 (Winter 1982): 33-38.

Dick, Philip K. “The Android and the Human,” SF Commentary, 31 (Dec. 1972): 4-26.

———. The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick. 5 vols. Los Angeles: Underwood/Miller, 1987.

———. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968; rpt. Toronto: Signet, 1969.

———. “Man, Android, and Machine,” in Science Fiction at Large, ed. Peter Nicholls (London: Gollancz, 1976), pp. 199-224.

Doll, Susan, & Greg Faller. “Blade Runner and Genre: Film Noir and Science Fiction,” Literature/Film Quarterly, 14 (1986): 89-100.

Dresser, David, “Blade Runner: Science Fiction and Transcendence,” Literature/Film Quarterly, 13 (1985): 172-79.

Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia,” Movie, 24 (1977): 2-13.

Fitting, Peter. “The Modern Anglo-American SF Novel: Utopian Longing and Capitalist Cooptation,” SFS, 6 (1979): 59-76.

———. “Reality as Ideological Construct: A Reading of Five Novels by P. K. Dick,” SFS, 10 (1983): 219-36.

———. “The Second Alien,” SFS, 7 (1980): 285-93.

———. “Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF,” SFS, 2 (1975): 47-54.

Fraser, John. Violence in the Arts. Cambridge, UK: 1974.

Greenberg, Martin Harry, & Joseph Olander, eds. Philip K. Dick. NY: 1983.

Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form. Princeton, 1971.

———. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text. 1 (1979): 130-48.

Kellner, Doug, & Flo Leibowitz & Michael Ryan. “Blade Runner: A Diagnostic Critique,” Jump Cut, 29 (1984): 6-8.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.

Portelli, Alessandro. “The Three Laws of Robotics,” SFS, 7 (1980): 150-56.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Novels of Philip K. Dick. Ann Arbor, MI: 1983.

Sammon, Paul. “The Making of Blade Runner,Cinefantastique, 12, nos. 5-6 (July-Aug. 1982): 20-47.

Strick, Philip. “The Age of the Replicant,” Sight and Sound, 51 (1982): 168-72.

Suvin, Darko. “Artifice as Refuge and World View: Philip K. Dick's Foci,” in Greenberg & Olander, pp. 73-95.

Telotte, J. P. “Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film.” Film Quarterly, 36 (Winter 1982): 44-51.

Warrick, Patricia. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA: 1980.

———, & Martin Greenberg, eds. Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick. [Stories] Carbondale, IL: 1984.

Wingrove, David. Science Fiction Film Source Book. London, 1985.

Simon Cunliffe (review date 11 March 1988)

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SOURCE: Cunliffe, Simon. “A Real Man.” New Statesman 115, no. 2972 (11 March 1988): 38.

[In the following review, Cunliffe explores the theme of the vulnerability of the family in the context of “the zeitgeist of AIDS-and-Reagan America” in Someone to Watch over Me.]

Ridley Scott's new film, [Someone to Watch over Me,] its title taken from a George and Ira Gershwin lyric, is a cracking good thriller. And, like other contemporary Hollywood movies, it filters its taut, suspenseful plot through the zeitgeist of an Aids-and-Reagan America—making comparison with Fatal Attraction initially irresistible.

Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) is an NY cop from unfashionably suburban Queens: happily married; one child. He is one of the lads, a good ole blue-collar boy. So is his wife Ellie (Lorraine Bracco). Although she is not above worrying to her husband about her sagging bum, she can mouth off with the best of them and proves a dab hand with a revolver in a crisis. In contrast, Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers), the sole witness to a brutal night-club slaying and whose protection is newly-promoted Keegan's first real assignment, is an aloof, sophisticated journalist. She lives in a luxurious apartment on the city's exclusive Upper East Side. The couple's enforced companionship traverses a path between hostility and passionate intimacy.

While, in this case, the attraction proves less than fatal, it nevertheless mobilises a familiar, morally qualified scenario. The integrity of the family—the natural repository of traditional values—threatened by the single working woman, the interloping seductress, the harbinger of social chaos. Mimi Rogers is, in short, another femme fatale for the Aids era. Like most, she is blonde, attractive and available. And, unlike her forerunners of the 1940s and '50s (Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, for instance), the transgression to which she incites her lover is social rather than criminal: adultery rather than murder. That which is dearest to the hero/victim, and of which she threatens to deprive him, is his family.

As Fatal Attraction neared its hysterical climax the cinema lingered on a photograph of the wholesome, happy Gallagher family to emphasise what was at stake. In Someone to Watch over Me the cathartic climax concludes with a shot of Keegan embracing his wife and son. His protective, shielding posture as he turns his head to glance goodbye to his on-looking lover clearly positions her once and for all as the threatening outsider.

Adultery in the movies is nothing new. What distinguished it in Fatal Attraction was the now infamous vehemence with which it proposed Glenn Close/Alex Forrest as the evil party—or, as various observers have pointed out, as a personification of the Aids virus itself. There is certainly a hint of this thesis in Someone to Watch over Me, but here there is also another theme, resonating throughout the movie: the discrepancy in the backgrounds of the two lovers.

“Fucking A,” Keegan whistles through his teeth as he casually inspects Ms Gregory's walk-through wardrobe, the contents of which would fund a sizeable down-payment for the house on which his wife has set her mind. It is as if Keegan has walked out of a Springsteen lyric and into a performance of grand opera. In studied contrast to the cramped domestic clutter of his own home, Gregory's apartment is a spacious maze of mirrors and marble—and, indeed, is accompanied by opera, the aria of La Wally, on sound track.

Since La Wally featured so effectively in the French movie Diva some years back, opera has predictably and tiresomely become the motif of cultural fecundity. Yuppies drive BMWs, carry matt black brief cases, wear wide braces, line the walls of their apartments with expensive art collections and listen to opera on compact disc (with Rigoletto no. 1 in this particular hit parade). But the extravagance of Gregory's material and cultural affluence does have a purpose: to amplify the spiritual poverty and moral vulnerability of the self-interested, WASPish, upper-middle-class milieu to which she belongs. Her escort in the initial stages of the movie is clearly a nerdish yuppie; it is he who suggests that perhaps she should make life easier and safer for herself by not testifying to the killing she has seen. Keegan's position is that she should, and that he will, of course, protect her. Thus moral ascendancy is clearly located within the blue-collar, working-class community.

Likewise the relationship between Gregory and Keegan exposes her unfulfilled emotional life: while he may envy her manners, she envies him his family life and his sense of belonging, his class solidarity.

Keegan is a flawed hero, but a hero nonetheless, whose transgression of moral codes protected and nurtured primarily by his own peer group is recuperated in his reunion with his family. In similar fashion, the real hero of Oliver Stone's forthcoming Wall Street is steadfast blue-collar union organiser Martin Sheen, who, unlike his screen (and actual) son Charlie Sheen (protegé to Michael Douglas' Boeskian dinosaur, Gordon Gekko) is not seduced by the glamour of the fast buck. The values he recognises reside in honest work, in creating something useful. Sheen junior accedes to this hard learnt lesson as his father accompanies him to the court house where he is due to appear on charges of fraud. Again, the moral thrust in the forthcoming comedy Planes Trains and Automobiles is one in which haughty yuppie Steve Martin, cooped up for days in the company of the rambunctious shower-curtain-ring salesman, John Candy, learns a little humility, becomes a little more human.

Last year a spate of escapist fantasies (Something Wild,Blind Date,Who's That Girl?) rescued their protagonists from boring, humourless, upwardly-mobile careers. The mood in a new batch of movies is less forgiving. It seems predicated upon a heightened consciousness which isolates yuppies as a class upon which both sexual and fiscal profligacy converge. In view of Aids and of the quagmire at the end of Ronnie's Reaganomic rainbow, such a mood in the movies might be said to constitute something of a backlash against the era's former champions. And, while many of us may quietly cheer about that, there are the usual ideological “buts” to contend with—not least of which is the continued abuse of the Aids-age femme fatale.

William Fisher (essay date autumn 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5022

SOURCE: Fisher, William. “Of Living Machines and Living-Machines: Blade Runner and the Terminal Genre.” New Literary History 20, no. 1 (autumn 1988): 187-98.

[In the following essay, Fisher identifies an emergent genre of “multinational, commercial avant-garde” films which he labels the Terminal Genre. Fisher comments that Blade Runner represents the highest achievement of this developing genre.]

The possibility of finding likeness in diversity has always been a safety valve on the critical apparatus—“when in doubt, subsume it under a rubric.” Now, on the other side of long debates on the subject in film studies, we understand “genre” to be a place where social experience (in the form of narrative conventions, audience expectations, and industrial practices) combines with the critic's act of “subsuming it under a rubric” in a mutually constitutive way. But the real use value of the idea of genre rests with its divisibility: as the cultural sphere continues to expand geometrically, it is always possible to generate new headings under which to marshal any film or films. Think of the recent critical interest in “cult films” or “midnight movies,” for which exhibition practices and audience constituency allow us a new generic subdivision boosting the enthusiasm of fans, the readership of film critics, and the box office of exhibitors.

With such all-round benefits in mind, generic bird watchers should waste no time classifying the new one rising from the ashes of second-run art houses. I will cautiously term it—in view of the decline of the American avant-garde and the stagnation of the oppositional cinema in Western Europe—the multinational, commercial avant-garde. Or, more briefly, the “Terminal Genre.”

I refer to the “up-to-the-minute,” “high-tech,” unrelentingly “chic,” and unabashedly “eclectic” feature film whose privatized, often grim vision commands a diverse and repeat non-mainstream audience. Multinational in its resources and points of reference, commercial in its appeal and intentions, avant-garde in its narrative and visual processes, the genre's uniqueness derives from its meticulously detailed representation of an altered world—apocalyptic or postapocalyptic—and all that obtains from it. Although its every production still is suitable for exhibition in the Whitney, its run sooner or later ends up on the late night circuit in the East Villages of the big American, European, and Asian cities. Among the best of the genre are Mad Max,The Road Warrior,Pink Floyd: The Wall,Vortex,Kamakazi '89,Streets of Fire,The Hunger,Buckaroo Banzai,Subway,Highlander,Terminator,Brazil, certain Grace Jones videos, and what I take to be the genre's highest achievement, Blade Runner. The practice of genre criticism is especially fitting here, because by dropping these films in some sort of container, the suitably marked typological slot, we viewers and reviewers participate in and complete the process of commodification that is the subject and precondition of this generic “signifying practice.”

For the clutter and cast-off cultural debris of “consumer society” provide not only the look and texture of these films, but also the raw material on which their narrative process works. This genre takes a reckless plunge into the junk pile of contemporary material life. That it can resurface with something salvageable entitles it to a utopian claim, for it belongs to a tradition where the utopian impulse acts as a magnetic north pole guiding us through the ruins of the heuristic “dystopia” which is represented.

The route of the Terminal Genre, however, is not a traditional means of access. The classical antinomies of the imagined utopia (Fourier's willed transformation of an aesthetic or libidinal order) and the designed utopia (Saint-Simon's systematically engineered transformation of a technological or social order)—both of which yield achieved, collective internal or external “spaces”—are abandoned in favor of isolated individual practices or processes. This new utopian impulse is composed of private, virtuoso moments of action and bricolage fashioned according to a dialectic of the play of imagination and the rigors of design.

On the basis of this dialectic, I view the Terminal as the successor of the various avant-garde movements of this century whose visions of a transfigured world were expressed in terms of the interaction and commutability of play and work. For these movements, work took the form of construction, with a lasting, lapseless mechanical ensemble as the end product bearing concrete testimony to the gratifying collective efforts of the workers. From artistic movements like Italian Futurism or Soviet Constructivism, to forms of social and cultural thought like Benjamin's notion of mechanical reproduction, Deleuze's figure of the “desiring machine,” or recent film theory's preoccupation with the “cinematic apparatus,” the wedge to be driven into existing ideological formations, the trope for new modes of art, dwelling, or social emancipation, has been cast in terms of manual or mechanical synergy. From notions of the Party as so many gears and pistons (the prospect of “building socialism”), to Corbusier's Une ville contemporaine (of building a total environment), the utopian moment in this tradition is one of freedom from fear of the future obtained by fixing the future in the image of a controllable technical ensemble.

Like those earlier movements, the Terminal Genre puts the figure of technology and the manipulation of worked matter to indiscriminate and ambiguous use. Scandalously enough, such representations have always looked much the same whether viewed from the left or the right. Whether Enzensberger or McLuhan on technology and the “democraticization” of the media, whether Stakhanovite or Taylorist efficiency, whether Lessitsky or Martinetti on the virtues of steel and concrete, the fixation with the formal properties of semiurgy, and the prospect of a controlled future arising from such properties, are common features of these forward-looking, proto-utopian visions, whatever their political persuasion.

To the extent that they are founded on the primacy of control, these visions reveal the real stake of their utopian impulse. I will state at the outset that the utopian emancipation offered by the Terminal Genre is of an equivocal sort.

It is, however, this very ambiguity that fills in the space between the idea of utopia and that of genre. That space narrows when we view the latter not in its classical guise as typology (a method of classification and organization, of grouping according to common elements), but in its more contemporary sense as various forms of everyday experience—the body of films designated “genre films” (westerns, disaster films, melodramas) with connotations of the B-picture, the mass audience product which offers diversion and escapism. Substitute for “diversion” and “escapism” the words “engagement” and “respite,” and we begin to have the makings of a utopian prospect.

But if we reintroduce older notions of genre as “mass culture”—a form of domination or one-way communication on the part of the “culture industry”—the utopian dimension takes on a terrifying character. Any utopian account of this sort of generic experience must face the fact that it is ultimately the commodity form of film itself which dictates the logic of critical and industrial generic categories. Such practices as target marketing, placing the film in the proper promotional slot or review column, and exhibition patterns all figure as vital moments of genre articulation founded on such very real material conditions as market trends, audience expectations, and theater needs.

It is in this context that I introduce the notion of the Terminal Genre as the fulfillment and conclusion of the process of generic fission. The Terminal must be distinguished from other hybrids or contemporary forms that properly belong to a “metageneric” genre—Star Wars as a space western, Flashdance as an updated, backstage musical, The Shining as a family drama with ax murderer—by virtue of a narrative apparatus that vitiates the very notion of genre as it produces and reproduces it. Compare the Terminal Blade Runner (ostensibly just another futuristic film noir) with the metageneric E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial (melodrama with otherworldly protagonist) and their relation to the various narrative conventions and “textual” operations on which they draw—especially their relation to science fiction, the genre to which type they bear the strongest resemblance at first glance.

The easygoing suburban character of E.T. seems far removed from the celebration of technology and galactic warfare usually associated with the genre. The film also develops a cogent, if affectionate, critique of middle-class values and lifestyles—tract housing, nonstop TV watching, the dynamics of the suburban neighborhood. We find too a surprisingly subversive view of authority, of parents, police, scientists, NASA officials, adults in general—the messianic purveyors of industrial and military expertise in the classical science fiction sources. E.T. offers a benign portrait of other worlds and peoples that are both glimpses at a reestablished “natural” collectivity and a demonstration of the spurious character of such cultural collectivities as the nuclear family and its disfigurations—the broken home, the unhappy marriage. This portrait stands in sharp contrast to the desperate efforts to deliver the American way of life from the threat of invading, brain-eating aliens and body-snatchers in the science fiction of the 50s.

Think also of the relation of E.T. to contemporary notions of science fiction as a privileged “mass cultural” domain for the elaboration of political and cultural concerns not accessible to “high cultural” artistic production. Because of the genre's suspension of disbelief and the reality principle (often side by side with the suspension of “good writing” or narrative polish), sci-fi is said to give free rein to the utopian imagination. The writer may freely fabulate impossibly harmonious social worlds, fantastically functional urban designs, imaginary worlds which contain imaginary solutions to problems which are impassible in reality. Viewed as such, science fiction has something of a postindividualistic dimension which manifests itself in the disappearance of the category of “character.” While the genre is often seen as presenting cut-out characters, one-dimensional bunches of clichés (a function, allegedly, of hasty writing and crass commercialism), a redemptive reading of the science fiction argues that the genre heralds instead the disappearance of the individualist form of “character” and the emergence of collective imaginary social formation. Science fiction offers in place of character a detailed “world” which itself becomes a character.

It is suggestive to view in this context the decline of the Hollywood star system in recent successful metageneric films (who are Dee Wallace or Mark Hammill anyway?) in light of the emphasis on “world” linked to innovations in such areas as special effects, design, art direction, or accompanying trends such as “spinoffs”—the generation of objects ranging from plastic antennae headbands to E.T. dolls to Tron videogames to Reese's Pieces. But in the last instance, E.T. offers “unique,” well-developed characters in the old sense of the word, with whom we empathize and identify. On the count of “ideological effect,” can there be any doubt but that it is melodrama with which E.T. ultimately has the strongest affinities?

For all its “progressive” content—its recuperative reinvention of classical science fiction themes and morals—the narrative apparatus of E.T. serves quite a different function from that of the Terminal Genre. For the former retains its stake in transparency and the cultivation of that imaginary relation with the spectator which is properly emotional rather than cognitive.

Consider such properly “filmic” moments as special effects work or musical scoring in the two films. Blade Runner's special effects, though dazzling, are never perceived as simply bravura technical performances. Instead they efface the expertise they require, rendering artifice not so much transparent as invisible, functioning rigorously in the service of representing the world of twenty-first-century Los Angeles. Even in its most opulent moments—representations of aircraft, aerial views of the city—the film's special effects dazzle on account of their seamlessness with the live action. Compare these with the italicized moments of special effects work such as the flying bicycle sequence in E.T, set off further by the swelling strings of a John Williams musical score. Even Blade Runner's music lends itself to this generic effect of effacing the nature-culture opposition, slipping back and forth between the diegetic and nondiegetic, its soothing electronic sonorities becoming a very part of the hypnotic, inescapable background noise of public spaces like elevators and cafes as well as the beeping and squelching gadget-ridden homes and apartments. It is precisely this unity of narrative effort that makes the terminal Blade Runner a mechanism without lapses, a precisely assembled, detailed representation of an entire world.

Although the film has many traditional elements (the iconography of science fiction, the film noir voice-over narration by a world-weary protagonist), Blade Runner “constructs” a very nontraditional spectator far removed from the teary-eyed adolescent viewer positioned by the narrative machinery of E.T. While the latter's recourse to melodrama and science fiction is synthetic and used principally to invoke those collective forms and reference points for telling a story in an old-fashioned (if uncannily skillful) way, recourse to science fiction and film noir in Blade Runner functions in a spirit of eclecticism that aims at nothing less than fashioning a qualitatively new mode of storytelling. Blade Runner seeks to abolish those reference points which in E.T. guide us through the labyrinth of generic experience. The Terminal Genre aims precisely at letting us lose our way in that labyrinth.

The prospect of losing the way, of being at play in a strange, new world, has always been a part of the agenda of the avant-garde. Like Futurism, Precisionism, or Constructivism, the Terminal film thematizes estrangement and uses it as a principle of assembly. It estranges, in fact, the very notion of genre—both as a set of formal narrative or visual conventions and as moments gleaned from the everyday. This principle in its latter sense rests on the aestheticization of the endless processes and analog flow of “the daily grind” (rather like MTV, whose “look” that of the Terminal Genre resembles in no small measure), transfiguring it into something engaging and exhilarating. Whether in the crowded, neon-blinded streets of twenty-first-century Los Angeles, the unrelenting stretch of two-lane blacktop in The Road Warrior, the New Wave disco in The Hunger, or leopard skin and fishnet stockings in Kamakazi '89, the Terminal offers an almost drug-induced, heightened perceptual experience that raises the everyday to the intensity of a head rush.

Yet this process is no mean formalist exercise offering simply the estranged perception as an aesthetic (or anaesthetic) end in itself. Like those products of earlier avant-garde movements, a work like Blade Runner may be viewed as a map through the strange, compelling world it anticipates and represents. In the last instance, perhaps, it even gives us directions. In the vital, pulsating night life of L.A. 2019, the thrill-'n'-kill world of the postapocalyptic Australian outback, or the luminous urban world of Vortex, we are presented with the possibility of the disappearance of the atomized individual, of its surrender to an unbroken chain of excitement and a world of beckoning unconditional consensus, a libidinal future beyond sex, class, or race. It is ultimately this alternative and its attraction/repulsion against which the Terminal genre squares off.

The setting for this skirmish—what is, finally, assembled and estranged by the narrative process of the genre—is everyday life in the postcontemporary metropolis. The latter emerges as the navel of all dystopian impulses, as well as the background for the possibility of liberation from them. The Terminal in general and Blade Runner in particular fix the future in the image of the city as living-machine and living machine: a man-made, fully automated world through which we live, a willful, voracious organism which lives through us. The utopian stake of the genre as well as its claim to terminality rests with the impossibility of controlling that image of the future.

The Terminal Genre takes this instability in part from science fiction: the city is transformed from a backdrop or landscape against which human events transpire to a protagonist in its own right, organizing and dispersing human experience at will. On its cue, daily life takes on a remarkably concrete character: “low-lives” are those who cannot afford to live above the hundredth floor in a three-hundred-story apartment complex; the corporate hierarchy is housed in a pyramid. Consumer goods and urban design of once determinate use take on a life of their own quite distinct from their original function, becoming so many blinking advertisements for no longer extant goods and services.

It is the totalizing effect of this indomitable, man-made flotsam and jetsam returned to the human world that emerges as the main conflict of the film. In an integrated, polylingual, polyethnic urban world where everyone is equally debased, the role of the proper object of social hatred descends upon the man-made Replicant. The living machine, a consumer product, legitimates and contains contempt and hatred (“skin jobs”) or becomes an object of free sexual privilege (“basic pleasure model”). As Blade Runner's ad campaign promised, “Man has made his match—now it's his problem.” In the manufactured wilderness of the twenty-first century, man's own handiwork becomes his worst enemy (like the acid rain that unabatingly pelts the city, or the ubiquitous neon that assaults the eye). The effective breakdown of physis and nomos has given birth to a man-made anti-environment that now exacts revenge from its creator.

This revenge takes the form of a life sentence to absolute dependence on the array of already produced goods and services—extant, remembered, or fabulated. Given the saturation of American cities and the great expense of construction, thorough restoration, or maintenance, urban designers, architects, and planners in Blade Runner's futuristic L.A. have opted for short-range shoring-up of the crumbling metropolis—installing new heating or cooling systems, elevators or other newly required apparatus on the very face of the buildings. This principle of design, with the various chambered spaces and lumpy additions it affords, bespeaks the notion of “mega-structure”—a massive, monumental design which elicits and contains individual habitational responses.

Think, for example, of the abandoned Bradbury Hotel, home of J. F. Sebastian, where dwelling space is up for grabs, ready to be recuperated and manipulated according to the needs and means of the squatter. But this older, capitalist utopian prospect of free land and unlimited opportunity (remember the “Off-World Colonies—a Land of Opportunity and Adventure”) is disfigured by forced recourse to bricolage and scavenging. These living-machines, like the sprawling mini-city of the Tyrell Corporation, are polymorphous, sealed, self-contained structures which operate according to the assembly of various styles and periods, themselves “terminal” in their cannibalistic recourse to what precedes them. (How far removed are these structures/processes from, for example, some of the recent Philip Johnson designs such as the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Building or the Republic Bank Building in Houston?) Although “functionalist” in the most basic sense of the world, the force and expressiveness of the retrofitted cityscape rests solely with its connotative content—its evocation of the gothic, the infernal, Jugendstil, or of cinematic landscapes such as the California of the American detective film.

The cumulative accretion of motley objects and styles creates not simply a static constellation of blinking lights, but an active process, a “practice” of objects as densely figured symbols which are a part of a consuming pleasure palace. But this free combination of terms—New Wave fashion, Heavy Metal fantastic gadgetry, film noir stylistics, and the rest—is exercised not as a principle of democratic choice, but as something desperate and ineluctable. The film's costume design, for example, bespeaks transgression—the aberrant, the bizarre, the arbitrary—but of a highly codified sort whose force derives from the dispersal of the traditional signs of power into style: the black leather jacket, the SS boots, the padded shoulders and wasp waist. Authority has been displaced; it appears in the guise of a set of cultural symbols that is fashion. To don these symbols is to put on authority, which has lost its central seat in the form of the police, the state, big business—who are forced in their turn to resort to a symbolic show of power in the form of monumental, brutal, or grotesque design (the Tyrell pyramid, the police uniforms).

This logic of atrophy and displacement positions all sectors of the postconsumer society created in the film, calling forth new forms of gadgetry that mediate and organize experience. Deckard's Mayan/Art Deco/Wrightian apartment complete with voice-controlled photoenlarger, Sebastian's collection of homemade playmates, the souped-up flying autos—all represent various stages in the process of what Philip Dick in the film's literary progenitor, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, calls “kippilization”: the accumulation of forgotten, discarded byproducts of a waning high-technology society. Even the various android detection devices, of which the Voight-Kampf is the most advanced (recall its ridiculously homemade appearance), can't keep pace with the android industry's ability to create machines that are, as Tyrell claims, “More human than human.” And the accelerated obsolescence of manufactured objects finds its ultimate expression in the four-year programmed lifespan of the Nexus 6 Replicant itself.

In a world where the streets are filled with nomads carrying their homes on their backs, where the greatest indication of status rests in super high-rise living, and where servants are manufactured to specification, real animals replaced by artificial ones, the “practice of objects”—their function as symbols of display and exchange rather than use—takes on a social role only vaguely anticipated by such brainstorms of today's marketing industry, such as “Drink Coke,” “Buy Our Pizza,” or fifteen-second spots featuring Bill Cosby consuming a given product. The character of all communication takes on the form and content of the advertising message, which is itself reduced to a strategy of bombardment by slogan-studded floating blimps.

The components of the world of Blade Runner are all those pseudo-goods and services that mobilize its denizens as part of a totalizing process according to which the individual is submerged in a pleasure principle which is controlled and designed, yet unable to be controlled and designed. This latter space is the postcontemporary physis, a man-made environment and an acculturated nature against which we find ourselves pitted in struggle as we did with the forests and mountains two hundred years ago.

But if that cluttered, pulsating world of the futuristic metropolis is the source and locus of everything that is alienating and alienated, it is also the material precondition for the assembly of its antithesis. As in the novels of Philip Dick, here we find an essential link between the shoddy trappings of urban life and transcendence. In Dick's novel Ubik it takes the form of the canned aerosol absolute of the same name. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch we find it in the drugs Can-D and Chew-Z, the addictive, hallucinogenic drugs that give paradisical respite from the bleak landscape and unrelieved boredom of colonial life on Mars. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? this link takes the form of Mercerism (the state religion of the near future) and the sanctity of empathy, the sole human trait which cannot be genetically engineered. While Mercerism proves to be a humbug in the novel, a dimension of hope resides in its tawdry yet precious rituals and gadgets (the “empathy box,” a sort of futuristic counterpart of the utopian “orgone box” of Wilhelm Reich).

In Blade Runner it is somewhere in the midst of the jungle of wraiths—the countless parking meters never used, the empty shells of buildings, the cordoned-off areas of the city, the stalled, abandoned autos blocking the streets—that we find the principle of hope. An essential element which Blade Runner shares with its literary progenitor is the importance of memory, of images from an authentic past, recuperable in spite of all the cultural debris that threatens to obscure them. As in all of Dick's written work, we find here an obsession with the past, with the symbolic density of original objects (arts and crafts in The Man in the High Castle, the tribal “water witch” in Martian Time Slip). In Blade Runner it rests with the importance of photographs, which represent a constant or certificate of origin and value that is contraposed with the burned-out obsolescence of consumer goods. It is this longed-for authenticity that the cinematic adaptation of Dick's novel substitutes for the possibility of transcendence offered by Mercerism.

It is fitting that these glimpses of a utopian past, of no longer existing homes and families, take the hardened, congealed form of an object, the photograph, the mere tracing of those former collectivities. For this is the fate of all such impulses in a world of rampant consumerism and unchecked industrial advance.

Can there be any doubt but that the utopian impulse, the possibility of liberation presented to us in Blade Runner, is a moment of regression? From the nostalgia of photographs recalling a stable, privatized past to valorized acts of bravery, it is moments of individuation that are given as possibilities of equilibrium in an otherwise vertiginous world. The prospect of release from selfhood offered by the throbbing world so forcibly developed by the Terminal film is ultimately defined against the perceived passivity of collective life—the motley hordes of punks, religious freaks, and dwarves in the street, the countless oriental artisans, the anonymous, teeming beautiful people of the cafes. It is this collective life which is the real locus of anguish for the protagonist, whose pangs of conscience, desperate assertions of self-identity, and reluctance to surrender are vestiges of a fading individualist mentality which is a source of both the narrative friction and the utopian drive of the genre.

Deckard's “work” or mission, like that of other protagonists of the Terminal Genre, represents a kind of nonalienated and nonproductive labor, a throwback to individual spontaneity, ingenuity, and courage that ultimately proves ineffectual against the products of the collectively organized and executed efforts of the Replicant industry, and against the phlegmatic Los Angeles crowds. His efforts nonetheless emerge as a heroic and liberating alternative to the debased piecework of the coolies, or the systematized drudgery of police work. The free contemplation of the poverty of both alternatives roots the protagonist's quest in an unabashed libertarianism while placing it in a postindividualist dimension.

For all the distrust summoned by authority and the unchecked exercise of individual power (the unflattering portraits of business magnate Tyrell or police chief Bryant), how much more unsettling its opposite—the prospect of surrender and release to something amorphous and collective in character. Although the Terminal Genre may be “multinational” in geographical scope, narrative coordinates, and appeal, let us not forget that like other multinational organisms, it has its source in American values and traditions of free enterprise, expansionism, and domination.

Like those other multinational bodies, it stands as the fulfillment of the promise of those traditions. Like those, too, it spells their end and anticipates the beginning of something else. The sense of the utopian impulse in Blade Runner and the Terminal Genre rests with this hesitation between the pull of an older individualism and the push of a nascent collective life. Older forms of domination (over nature, over those very collective inclinations) and rational, planned control of the future founded on a model of clear-cut voluntarism are no longer adequate to the challenge of the material conditions which they have wrought.

Yet neither is the prospect of submission to the spurious utopia of a totalizing pleasure palace an acceptable alternative. The de facto loss of subjecthood, the hopelessness and anonymity offered by both options, becomes a fetter which the fits and starts of the protagonist are determined to overcome. Although these efforts may take the form of isolated moments and discontinuous efforts rather than of an achieved space or developed plan, we must view them as proto-utopian moments in their own right, an ad hoc strategy called for in strange new surroundings where all coordinates (such oppositions as domination and submission, activity and passivity, nature and culture) break down. The very problem of distinguishing between the human and the simulacra, the nagging doubts of “false memory implants” (that the Blade Runner himself may be a Replicant), the takeover of the media and police by androids who believe they are human in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, force us to scrap earlier utopian designs—and with them the drawing board.

For the Terminal Genre, although specifically and painstakingly designed, has no stake in the possibility of design. And although powerfully imaginative, none in the power of imagination or contemplation. For all its likenesses to earlier avant-garde forms, the Terminal makes none of their claims to be able to surpass cultural or social crises. Its sentence and peculiar utopian strategy is to produce and reproduce those crises until the whole complex gives way at the roots. Although it shares with those movements an impulse to construct, its materials are not glass, steel or concrete, but the hand-me-down furnishings and gadgetry of contemporary urban life and the leftover stock scenarios of old movies. Indeed, the image of the future it assembles bears a stronger resemblance to the doomsday machines of the everyday of Tinguely or Rube Goldberg. The undeniable fascination evoked by the Terminal Genre is not far removed from the engagement summoned by the ensemble of cranks, catapults, fulcrums, and levers by which the latter contrives to remove a wad of cotton from an aspirin bottle. As with those technical ensembles, we may not demand too much from the Terminal: I hope that it is not disingenuous to add that although it is “terminal”—the conclusion and fulfillment of generic experience and subdivision—it is, in the last instance, only one genre among many.

So too its utopian strategy. Terminality in the cinema is partly human, partly a tangle of pumps, hoses, and dials, man-made machinery that has taken on a life of its own, sustaining the life of its host organism, yet ticking and clicking its remaining time away before the final explosion. Its agenda is to pass that time. The motto of its utopianism could be the corny, cynical, not wholly satisfied words of Deckard as he takes his leave of the city, his mechanical bride with her indeterminate programmed life span at his side: “I didn't know how long we'd have together—who does?”

Peter Ruppert (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Ruppert, Peter. “Blade Runner: The Utopian Dialectics of Science Fiction Films.” Cineaste 17, no. 2 (1989): 8-13.

[In the following essay, Ruppert argues that Blade Runner is critical of the dominant social ideology in late consumer capitalism, observing that the film expresses ideological ambiguities which arouse the spectator's desire for an alternative to the status quo.]

Since first envisioned by Thomas More as an imaginary site that playfully maps out the possibilities for a rich and rewarding collective life. Utopia has been systematically undermined in its own form and survives today in a variety of grim and menacing visions (Orwell, Huxley. Zamyatin, and others)—visions that dramatically invert utopian images of collective well-being into images of collective dehumanization and collective extinction. Discrediting utopias as hopelessly naive and as potentially dangerous (totalitarian), these antiutopias or dystopias, as they have come to be known, see human possibilities in dark and despairing terms, and their overwhelming dominance today suggests that we have difficulty imagining our future other than in terms of some kind of catastrophe. In recent years, this corruption of Utopia, and the significant changes in social values and attitudes that it entails, has been especially apparent in science fiction (SF) films.

Films such as Alien,Blade Runner,Repo Man, and UFOria can be distinguished from earlier SF films and also from other recent SF films in terms of their social ideology, that is, in their more concrete representation of social life and social experience in late consumer capitalism. These films present us with a familiar social world: a world of corporate capitalism, mass advertisement, mass consumerism; a world in which advanced technology and commodity culture are linked to social values, life rhythms, personal relationships, and even the temporal sense of its subjects. Alien, for example, offers a devastating critique of corporate capitalism (as represented by the Company and its android agent), which is seen to transform all of nature into commodities for exploitation and to reduce human relationships to impersonal forms of reification and objectification. The incredibly efficient alien-monster can be seen as a double for the Company itself and for its ideology—amoral, aggressive, totally lacking in empathy or conscience. Blade Runner evokes in vivid images contemporary anxieties about life in a postindustrial city—images of urban decay, waste, pollution, racism; images that leave us with a sense of the despair and the alienation associated with contemporary American urban life. Although different in style and attitude, Repo Man and UFOria also project a familiar world—a world of supermarkets, fast-food stores, televangelism, gas stations, ethnic minorities, sub-cultures—a world of violence and corruption in which all experience, including even religious experience, is mass-mediated and commodified. Unlike the antiseptic and technologically efficient worlds of earlier SF films, these films show us the grimy underside of contemporary American life, the junk and trash of a society of mass production and mass consumption, a baleful world in which the misuse of technology and greed have combined to virtually obliterate nature and natural life forms. Unlike SF films that emphasize the wish-fulfillment side of the utopian dialectic, these films emphasize the negative side, the side of social criticism and social satire.

But in relentlessly exposing these intolerable conditions, these films also create a desire for alternatives—alternatives that are glimpsed momentarily in the films' ‘happy’ or mock-transcendent conclusions. These happy endings, however, are achieved at considerable strain to the narratives. Rather than attribute these endings to a failure of the SF imagination at the crucial moment of closure or to the more general constraints of Hollywood production and distribution, as is usually done, I would suggest that these endings can also be seen to represent that abrupt shift from critical exposition of social fact to utopian fantasy characterized here as the utopian dialectic. The effect of this shift, then, is not to neutralize the force of the social criticism, but to intensify it, leaving us more or less suspended between the intolerable conditions exposed in the films and our desire for more adequate solutions. Thus suspended, the audience is moved by a desire for reappropriation, a desire to counter the negative images of social life displayed in the films with more meaningful and more hopeful alternatives.

To realize the activating (and potentially subversive) effects of these films we need to focus, first of all, on how they represent our social experience in terms of both our prevailing anxieties and our hopes. This experience does not always find direct expression in the films but emerges at a deeper, ideological level of the narrative. Fredric Jameson has shown how works of mass culture can be seen to function at this level in producing their audience-effects. Jameson finds that, analogous to the work of dreams, popular forms such as gangster films, thrillers, and SF films function to stimulate and awaken our repressed fears and hopes before they neutralize or allay them in imaginary and symbolic solutions. In this process, however, as Jameson points out, our hopes and concerns must first be evoked, made apparent, and articulated before they can be repressed, neutralized, or otherwise “managed.” Works of mass culture, no matter how ideological a function they serve in justifying existing social and political relationships, must also be seen to contain some collective fantasy or desire—a utopian impulse to counter the status quo—that is aroused and given voice before it can be diverted and manipulated to serve existing ideological ends. As Jameson puts it: “Works of mass culture cannot be ideological without at one and the same time being implicitly or explicitly Utopian as well: they cannot manipulate unless they offer some genuine shred or content as a fantasy bribe to the public about to be manipulated.”1

It also seems obvious, however, that any discussion of the audience-effects of SF films (or any other films for that matter, since cinema is both narrative and spectacle) should also take into account how these films are actually received. What is not at all obvious, however, is how we should go about determining and discussing audience or viewer response. For, once we affirm the importance of audience in attributing ideological effects to films, there are numerous other problems. One extreme tendency is to describe viewers as passive receptacles that simply absorb the film's meanings and effects; the other extreme is to hypostatize the viewer/screen relationship and to make film viewing into an intense consciousness-raising experience.

These tendencies are especially apparent in a film like Blade Runner, which has been read both as a regressive fantasy of disaster and reconciliation that legitimizes the status quo, and as a radical critique of existing social relations under capitalism that implies resistance to its dehumanizing values. Rather than attempt to determine which of these readings is correct, let's examine the basic ambiguities in the film. Blade Runner, rather than one of the other films mentioned above, serves as a good case study primarily because it has achieved the status of a cult film and has generated a great variety of critical responses and also because, unlike the others, it can be located more directly in the mainstream of SF cinema.

The basic ambiguities in Blade Runner center on the moral issues raised by the film's blurring of the distinctions between human and artificial life forms, on the political issues raised by the attempted revolt of the replicants, and especially on the ending of the film. It has been read both as a reactionary retreat into privatism and Hollywood clichés and as a redemptive existential gesture that implies a rejection of violence and a resistance to the conditions exposed in the film. While some viewers read the film as a spectacle of excessive violence that trivializes and obscures the social and moral issues it raises, others emphasize the implicit critique in the film's aversion to the abuses of capitalism and technology. A dialectical reading begins by acknowledging both possibilities, but then makes these contradictory readings themselves the point of departure, because they provide the key to the ideology embedded in the film.

The source of much of the disagreement surrounding Blade Runner is the apparent disjunction between its vivid and spectacular representation of our fallen social or public sphere and its rather banal narrative and plot dealing with a private love story. Critics who approach the film as spectacle generally praise its visual power in representing the present-day social world through striking images of a postindustrial environment characterized by crowds, excessive technology, and urban decay. Some find that its representation of our “derelict social space” and our schizophrenic sense of time provides “a metaphor for our postmodern condition.”2 Others have praised the film's realistic representation of advanced technology and its regressive effects on the quality of social life. Indeed, the opening sequences of the film establish an immediate sense of a city in the grip of a technological fallout. This is obviously not the gleaming high-tech city of the future that we associate with SF films but, rather, a city with recognizable problems: overcrowding, pollution, acid rain, urban squalor. Most of all, we see the junk and waste of a consumer culture. In one telling detail observable at several points in the film, streets and hallways are lined with multiple discarded generations of computer terminals.

Crowding the streets of this rundown metropolis we see a mixture of heterogeneous social groups: oriental merchants and artisans, street gangs, shoppers, punks, Hari Krishnas speaking a homogenized language called “city-speech”—“a mish-mash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you.” This homogenization of heterogeneity is also evident in the dilapidated buildings and crumbling architecture displayed throughout the film—a patchwork of various styles and diverse periods. Everywhere we look we see the spectacle of mass-advertisement: Coca-Cola signs; an Oriental face inducing us to take drugs; and a host of other advertisements for well-known consumer goods make the city into one massive advertisement.

A large floating screen hovering between buildings invites us to escape to the “off-world colonies” (artificial suburbs orbiting the earth) with the promise of “a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.” Later, we learn that only those who can pass a medical exam are allowed to emigrate. This excludes a number of people who, like J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), suffer from a condition identified as “accelerated decrepitude”—a condition that aptly describes the social sphere in the city. This is none other than Los Angeles in 2019, a large marketplace with a warren of shops and small laboratories in which technicians work to reproduce mechanical replicants of life forms that are now extinct on earth.

More than just a mottled background for the film's narrative, this excessive scenography effectively depicts a degraded social sphere and evokes a number of contemporary anxieties about the city: our general fear of the city as a chaotic and congested prison from which no escape seems possible; the fear of a potentially threatening mob represented in the sheer concentration of various ethnic and minority groups; the fear of a situation in which nature is so mediated by technology and spectacle that we are no longer able to distinguish the real from the artificial. These images of massive depersonalization, homogenization, and fragmentation also leave us with an overwhelming sense of loss: a loss of nature and natural life forms; the loss of identity and continuity with the past and the desire for a future; the loss of the sense of the city as a locus for community and more genuine collective activity. In bringing these fears and anxieties to the surface, the film leaves no doubt about their source in corporate capitalism and its ideology of a free market and free enterprise.

Towering above this image of a clogged city is the Tyrell Corporation, whose influence and power extends from the ‘off-world colonies’ to those artisans and technicians working in slum neighborhoods (whose collective effort it has organized for private profit) to the police force which seems to have infiltrated every part of the city. The business of this corporation, we are told, is “commerce,” and its motto is “more human than human.” Its most advanced products are genetically engineered androids, called replicants, produced for military purposes, for slave labor, and for pleasure. Originally designed for the conquest of space, some of the more advanced models (Nexus 6) have developed human emotions and feelings—along with the need for a sense of identity, continuity, history—and have become rebellious. As a “fail-safe device” they have been constructed with a limited “life-span” of four years, and the very latest models, we are informed, are supplied with memory implants—to serve as a “cushion against emotions” so that they can be controlled more easily. In spite of these precautions, however, some replicants have rebelled in violent ways and have become such a threat to society that units of a special police force—bounty hunters or “blade runners”—have been formed to hunt and “retire” them.

Many have observed that social attitudes towards replicants are portrayed as racist. When a police captain refers to them as “skin jobs,” Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the protagonist, tells us that the term is the equivalent of “nigger” in a former time. This association is reinforced at several points in the film, for example when the replicant Leon (Brion James) asks Deckard if he knows what it means “to live in fear” and when Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the leader and most fearsome of the replicants, explicitly asks Deckard if he knows what it means to be a slave. Thus, the elaborate psychological tests administered by blade runners to identify runaway replicants can be seen as a form of discrimination by which the dominant group tries to maintain its power over those it considers inferior.

The irony, of course, is that while the basic function of blade runners seems to be to suppress the development of replicant subjectivity, the Tyrell Corporation keeps refining replicant technology to the point where it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish human consciousness from machine consciousness. As replicants become more and more human, humans are becoming more and more like machines. This contradiction is apparent in Deckard's relationship with the replicant Rachael (Sean Young), who has been given memory implants and photos of a past to document them and who is actually unaware that she is not human. Deckard finds this very troublesome, not only because it makes his job as blade runner more difficult, but because it leads him to certain recognitions about himself, about his social role as a blade runner, and, by extension, about his racist and dehumanizing society.

Critics who approach the film in terms of its narrative development tend to focus on Deckard's gradual recognitions in the process of ‘retiring’ four rebellious replicants. Even though the film has been read as a simple (and rather cynical) love story in which Deckard is rewarded for his service to a corrupt society with his own “pleasure model” replicant with whom he escapes “into a Playboy sunset,”3 there is considerably more ambivalence and complexity in the film's representation of the private sphere. Deckard's doubts about his social role, for example, are evident in the opening sequence of the film when, in voice-over narration, he states that he is an “ex-cop” or “exblade runner” who has had “a belly full of killing.” He allows himself to be recruited for one more job, but only after the police captain threatens him, saying that outside the police force Deckard is just one of the “little people.” Deckard later interprets this for us as meaning that he would be just another victim in a system in which one is either a victim or a victimizer.

Despite his initial reluctance, Deckard's function as a blade runner puts him clearly in the service of corporate interests and, since replicants are explicitly compared to runaway black slaves, makes it difficult for us to identify with him at this point in the film. As his doubts about himself and his social function grow, however, he also becomes more humanized. Rachael asks him at one point if he has ever taken the test by which replicants are identified, suggesting that his callousness and lack of compassion make him less human than his victims. His uncertainty is increased when Deckard thinks about why replicants cling so desperately to their photographs. “Replicants weren't supposed to have feelings,” he says. “Neither were blade runners. What the hell was happening to me?”

What is happening to him, of course, is the realization that he is hunting and killing not violent machines but victims of a system that creates and enslaves conscious beings. This is the significance of the richly embellished scene at the piano in Deckard's apartment in which Rachael studies Deckard's family photos. The photographs offer a resonant contrast to Deckard's current alienated private life. Depicting various family occasions, the photographs recall a richer and more meaningful past, a time with a sense of identity, continuity, and relatedness. More than just Deckard's growing sympathy with replicants, this scene suggests that Deckard is developing feelings and emotions that correspond to Rachael's—feelings of ‘love’ and ‘trust’—that are the exact opposite of the indifference and ruthlessness necessary to fulfill his function as blade runner.

The process of Deckard's humanization is then completed in the climactic scene: Roy saves Deckard's life out of love for life itself. There is an important reversal in this scene as Deckard the hunter and victimizer becomes the hunted victim and experiences firsthand what it means “to be a slave” and “to live in fear.” This scene can be interpreted, and has, in terms of its redemptive connotations: as a “renunciation of violence,”4 or as the scene in which Deckard “transcends his aloofness” and plunges into an existential commitment to life.”5 These readings are reinforced visually in Roy's release of a white dove and in his final lines, as he laments in elegiac tones the loss of time and memory: “All these moments,” he says, “will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.”

A deeper significance lies, however, in the reversal of roles as Deckard also recognizes that replicants are not really different from the rest of us: “All he'd wanted.” Deckard says as he watches Roy die, “were the same answers the rest of us want: where do I come from, where am I going, how long have I got.” This recognition parallels familiar recognition scenes in most antiutopias in which the rebel and a representative of the dominant system confront each other, and the latter reveals the ‘noble lies’ on which society is constructed. In Blade Runner this revelation scene provides us with an important meaning for the replicants' revolt: they are innocent victims who rebel against a violent and degrading system that reduces them to ‘skin jobs’ and denies them the status of being human.

Paradoxically, then, it is in their desire for a meaningful past and for an unlimited future that replicants invoke the only utopian potential of this degraded, indeed fallen, world. When we recall that these powerful and intelligent beings are the product of the same technology that has produced so much social misery, our anger cannot but be aroused by the contradictions of a system that wastes and destroys its utopian possibilities so thoughtlessly in extending the conditions of dystopian despair.

The final scene depicting an escape into an unspoiled utopian wilderness is not, therefore, all that implausible or unexpected. Whether we read this scene as pure escapism or a confirmation of Deckard's transcendence or, as I've tried to suggest, as an intensification of the contradictions and discrepancies that the film has set up, depends to a great extent on our own priorities and ideological commitments. What needs to be acknowledged is that Blade Runner projects both dystopian and utopian possibilities of technology. In displacing those images of dystopian waste and abuse with a more desirable alternative. Blade Runner attempts to defamiliarize out own moment in history as a critical moment, a moment marred by contradictions but, to be sure, a moment of hope.

We see, for example, a situation in which machines are more human than human while humans have become machines, desensitized by a society based on spectacle and violence; a situation in which corporations like the Tyrell Corporation have the capacity to ‘humanize’ technology but instead produce an artificial and alienating social world, a throwaway culture that has lost all sense of time and history; a situation in which animals are status symbols for the rich, valued because of their scarcity, while human life is devalued and debased; a situation in which superhuman replicants desire simply to be human, to have a sense of self and continuity with the past (Rachael) and a desire for a future (Roy).

We also see, however briefly, an alternative situation in a natural, unmediated, unpolluted landscape of earth and sea and clouds. For the future of the world represented in the film, this alternative is already a moment in the past. For us, however, the late 20th century audience, it is an alternative that the film makes available to us here and now, however rapidly it may be receding. The ideological effect of Blade Runner emerges from these contradictions, and its message depends largely on whether we see the final moments of the film as a neutralization of these contradictions or as their intensification.

Is this ending, then, an escape into privatism and nostalgia? Is it the kind of ending that absolves our doubts and anxieties about pressing social concerns? A one-dimensional emblem of inadequate response? On the surface I suppose the film can be read this way, although, strictly speaking, the escape into the past represented here also fuses with our present. But escapism is not necessarily a regressive and reactionary act and, in Blade Runner, not at all a conciliatory one. There is an implicit urge to escape in all utopian dreams—the desire to get away from an intolerable situation, the desire to refuse the ‘real’ conditions of existence. Effective criticism of the present moment may express itself in terms of a more desirable future or in terms of a more desirable past—a Golden Age of pastoral simplicity and authenticity.

The dominant tendency in recent SF films is nostalgia, a return to a less complicated past rather than the desire for an alternative future, which, of course, would require much more imagination and ideological investment. Even though some will label this tendency regressive, in Blade Runner it can also be read as an act of refusal and resistance. To escape from the kind of clogged capitalistic nightmare represented here, with its massive depersonalization and fragmentation of private and social life, means to desire a more meaningful and more hopeful alternative, a capacity that most of the inhabitants of this future city apparently no longer have. And an individual escape, no matter how private and insignificant it may seem, is also the first step in a more collective act of resistance.

Attributing this kind of critical and cognitive effect to Blade Runner may seem an extravagant claim, an attempt to make film viewing into a kind of political consciousness-raising experience. If we read the film dialectically, however, as both spectacle and narrative, then its ideology is not embedded exclusively in one or the other but emerges in the interplay between the two and in the interplay among film, audience, and social reality. The aim of such an approach is not the revelation of an internal meaning that can be accounted for textually, nor the demonstration of how some viewers have (mis)understood the film, but the opening-up of the film—both in terms of how it constrains us and in terms of the possibilities it makes available to us. This approach allows us to acknowledge the stereotypes and regressive formulas associated with the genre, at the same time that it allows us to recognize a more liberating function in the social anxieties and fantasies that these films take up and articulate.

Just as there is an explicit or implicit dystopia in every utopia, there is also an implicit or repressed utopia in every dystopia. Similarly, beneath the surface of these neutralizing and seemingly impotent fantasies of destruction there are other fantasies evoked in the desire for more meaningful social and personal relationships. Approached this way, SF films can be seen to produce a particularly productive tension between our social anxieties and our social fantasies, a tension that enacts utopian desire and arouses utopian dreams. Even though the social vision of the majority of recent SF films remains predominantly antiutopian, there are encouraging signs in that some of these films link disaster to the quality of social life and to collective experience in order to make this tension more resonant and more effective. It is this explicit linking of technology and social existence in films such as Blade Runner,Alien,Repo Man, and UFOria that leads to a more critical exposition of social contradictions and stimulates a more urgent desire for alternatives.

Any attempt to defend this genre should at least take into account the potential benefits of this approach without disregarding the genre's obvious limitations. Taken on their own terms. SF films may be easily dismissed as infantile and banal examples of the kind of wishful thinking that makes them for the most part agents of a consumer culture. Vivian Sobchack concludes in Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film that most of them are either “regressive fantasies” or “‘delirious’ comedies totally absorbed in the material present.” This seems, at first glance, an appropriate judgment, since these films are the products of an ‘apparatus’ designed to manage and satisfy the fantasies of a consumer culture. But it also overlooks the revelatory potential that a dialectical reading of these fantasies makes available. Seen more closely, these films provide us with a more critical inroad to our “material present.’ In daring to represent the extraordinary and unthinkable, these fantasies also defamiliarize or ‘make strange’ a more familiar situation. They restructure the past or project a future that can give us a glimpse—momentarily at least—of the contradictions in our present situation. In short, SF films can be read more optimistically and productively, if we read them both in terms of what they express and what they repress: in terms of the utopian dialectic that combines social criticism with wishful thinking in order to arouse the desire for some kind of alternative.


  1. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Social Text 1 (Winter 1979), p. 144.

  2. Guiliano Bruno, “Ramble City: Postmodernism, and Blade Runner.October 41 (Summer 1987). pp. 61-74.

  3. Peter Fitting, “Futurecop: The Neutralization of Revolt in Blade Runner,Science-Fiction Studies 14 (1987). p. 346.

  4. Doug Kellner, Flo Leibowitz and Michael Ryan, “Blade Runner: A Diagnostic Critique,” Jump Cut 29 (1984), pp. 6-8.

  5. Thomas B. Byers, “Commodity Futures: Corporate State and Personal Style in Three Recent Science-Fiction Movies,” Science-Fiction Studies 14 (1987), pp. 326-339.

Thomas B. Byers (essay date autumn 1989)

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SOURCE: Byers, Thomas B. “Kissing Becky: Masculine Fears and Misogynist Moments in Science Fiction Films.” Arizona Quarterly 45, no. 3 (autumn 1989): 77-95.

[In the following essay, Byers comments that Alien, Blade Runner, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers include several moments of “startling misogyny,” arguing that such instances of cinematic textual excess express “both the instability of male identity and the vulnerability of male hegemony.”]

The four classic science-fiction films to be discussed here—Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982)—are all marked by a common element: the presence of at least one moment of startling misogyny. These moments are startling in part because they involve either a narrative digression or superfluity, a stylistic deviation, or a violation of their films' prior encodings of the female. More importantly, each of them expresses an unanticipated level of male fear of or violence toward women, in response to a threat to men's powers of representation and control. What follows attempts to read in these moments of textual excess both the instability of male identity and the vulnerability of male hegemony.

This reading is part of the stream of response to Laura Mulvey's watershed essay on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” with its crucial analysis of “Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look.” Since Mulvey, a good deal of writing on film and gender has focused on trying to undermine the seemingly monolithic structure of the classic patriarchal Hollywood system, and particularly on theorizing women's relation—and opposition—to a cinema that seems systematically to exclude them as subjects. Hence critics have taken up such matters as the “return of the gaze” on the part of the female image/object, the problem of “women's cinema,” and the positions of actual female spectators, in various historical moments, as they watch classic Hollywood movies.1 My emphasis, however, is not on the female so much as on specific terms of address to the male spectator. My hope is that the gaps uncovered within this address may open into a space that feminist film theorists can use in their project of locating female subjectivity. Even the fear of women, uncomfortably lodged not only within patriarchy in general but within individual men as they are constructed by that structure and its specific texts, may be one trace of women's actual or potential position as subjects.2

In order to map this fear, it is necessary first to recognize the difference between a monolithic myth of Man and a historical conception of men. In erasing women as “real historical beings” in favor of “woman” as a male construct, the “other from man” (De Lauretis 5), men have attempted to erase their own history as well—including their own individual histories—in favor of becoming “Man,” the one who has the phallus, the father who is the subject-speaker of the law rather than the castrated sons who are subjected to it. It is in the guise of this figure that men appear when patriarchy presents itself as secure and omnipotent. Recognizing what is at stake for men in their constructions of the feminine is part of “His” demystification.

Metropolis,Invasion of the Body Snatchers,Alien, and Blade Runner all date from periods of reaction to historical events (the two World Wars and the rise of contemporary feminism) that threatened male hegemony by loosening traditional restraints on women. All four films react to such threats in part by explicitly raising the “specter” of human identity as construction, and playing off the difficulty of distinguishing reproductions from original or “real” human beings. In each case such reproductions are seen as dangerous antagonists to humanity (although in Blade Runner they are not unanimously or unequivocally hostile). It may be that this motif itself helps trigger the reaction that the misogynist moment embodies.3 The threat posed by the reproduction reflects the fear of the double—a figure who, though created as an assertion of the ego against its own destruction, becomes a “ghastly harbinger of death,” a “vision of horror” (Freud, “The Uncanny” 141, 143). The male construction of woman may operate similarly, as woman, herself a reproduction, a double, continually threatens to escape man's control.4

All the films but Alien feature female figures who are either transformations of women (Invasion), copies of them (Blade Runner), or a combination of the two (Metropolis).5 Interestingly, in all four films the reproductions are made by or work under villainous orders specifically connected with male greed or lust for power. Thus to the degree that any force genuinely threatens the “natural” order or the virtuous protagonists, the narrative must recuperate even this oppositional force for patriarchy; women, or their images, must remain objects of exchange among men. The possibility of an independent and more than idiosyncratic female power cannot be openly plotted. But the failure of the story as a whole successfully to contain such a power necessitates specific moments of excess in which fear or antagonism is directed against women, in reaction to their threat to men's mastery—over women, over themselves, or both.

Conveniently, the scenes from the earlier two movies primarily emphasize fear, while those in Scott's films represent masculine reactions to such fear—reassertions of the male in physical aggression (at least implicitly including rape and sodomy), and, for the viewer, in sadistic voyeurism. In general, the fears at issue are of the central threats to patriarchy: women's sexuality (Metropolis) and autonomy (Invasion,Alien), men's incapacity to control reproduction (Invasion) or maintain a unified, stable sense of identity (Alien,Blade Runner). Finally, in all four scenes either the male gaze or its return is a prominent element.

The scene in Metropolis is the one in which the inventor Rotwang devises a test to “see whether people believe the robot is a creature of flesh and blood.” The “people” who are subjected to the test are, interestingly enough, the rich and powerful men of Metropolis (even though the robot's major function will be to deceive the working class). These men are gathered together at a sort of “smoker,” where the robot rises from an urn supported by slave figures and, nearly naked, belly-dances as the men gaze at her. The solemn, hypnotized intensity of their wide-eyed look reflects the anxieties and vulnerability that, according to Mulvey's analysis of male spectators, are generally concealed within the compensatory strategies of fetishism and voyeuristic sadism (811-12, 816). Miriam Hansen, discussing the moment in Valentino's films when his “eyes become riveted on the woman of his choice,” claims that he becomes “paralyzed rather than aggressive or menacing, occupying the position of the [traditionally feminine] rabbit rather than that of the [traditionally masculine] snake” (15). The men of Metropolis remain aggressive; they want to be snakes. But they are similarly paralyzed, controlled by the other's display. This moment directly reverses what Linda Williams identifies as the typical gender coding of the gaze: “where the (male) voyeur's properly distanced look safely masters the potential threat of the (female) body it views, the woman's look of horror paralyzes her in such a way that distance is overcome; the monster or the freak's own spectacular appearance holds her originally active, curious look in a trance-like passivity that allows him to master her through her look” (Williams 86). In this scene from Metropolis, the men assume the position of Williams's woman, while the female figure is the mesmerizing phallic monster.

Mulvey in fact suggests that, given certain conditions, this paralysis is always at least potential within the structure of male spectatorship: “as soon as … the erotic image on the screen appears directly (without mediation) to the spectator, the fact of fetishization, concealing as it does castration fear, freezes the look, fixates the spectator and prevents him from achieving any distance from the image in front of him” (816). In this particular case, however, the men in the film's audience are allowed to achieve a contemplative distance from the horror by the mediating presence onscreen of the men at the smoker (as well as of Freder). These onscreen victims at once suggest the danger and keep the filmic audience at one remove from it. This remove, however, is one only of safety, not of ironic distance. The scene does not analyze or comment on male fear, so much as it simply plays to it by depicting the female as terrifying—a depiction that is borne out not only by the hero's (Freder's) reaction to the robot's performance, but also by her disruptive and destructive role in the ensuing narrative.6

The terror here, however, is not the strictly Freudian reminder of castration that comes with the sight of the female's “lack.” Rather, as Roger Dadoun points out, the robot-Maria represents the fearsome castrating power of female “sexuality itself” (160)—particularly, I would argue, the threat of the woman's potential insatiability and its capacity to undermine the male's sexual pride (see Gallop, Daughter's Seduction 35), or the related threat that she may, after displaying her body, withhold it from a man on the assumption that he is not man enough. These threats have been among the only weapons, and the only sources of autonomy, that men have perceived and feared as available to women struggling for individual power within the systematic repressions of patriarchy.

The paralyzed gaze, the implication of castration, and the fear of female sexuality all have precedents in the classically misogynist motif of the Medusa's head, a motif to which the scene makes visual reference when we see “the robot rising from the floor against the darkened drapes, seated on a grotesque, writhing, many-headed sea-monster” (Sinclair 88). The image suggests what Freud called “the technical rule according to which multiplication of penis symbols signifies castration” (“Medusa's Head” 212). Certain contradictions, or at least significant overdeterminations, in Freud's version of the Medusa are worth exploration here, for they bear not only on the specific scene from Metropolis, but on the more general nature of the male fears and repressions that obliquely inscribe themselves in misogynist excess. On the one hand, Freud sees the snakes as fetishes, replacements for the penis, and as such “a mitigation of the horror.” Yet as Terence Holt points out, they also increase the horror, by suggesting the phallic mother, who is also “a potential castrator” (Holt 10; see also Lurie 165-66). And they are also, as Neil Hertz says, “the pubic hair surrounding the castrated … sex of the mother” (166), a sign that, according to Freud, the young boy reading his mother's body takes as an index of the tenuousness of his hold on his own member. This latter point is the ground of Freud's notion that it is not the Medusa herself but her decapitation that is fearful: “To decapitate = to castrate. The terror of Medusa is thus a terror of castration that is linked to the sight of something” (“Medusa's Head” 212).

What Freud forgets—or represses—is that the Medusa had the power to turn men to stone before she was decapitated. Indeed that power was then a good deal more fearsome than it is after Perseus slices and seizes it. In his hand the head turns under male virtue's control; decapitation is domestication. Prior to it, the male “victim's” petrification can be referred to the female's defining attribute as a power rather than a lack. The man, whose symbolic economy depends on the repression of libido and the specular view of the female, may in fact fear her not because she is castrated, but precisely because she isn't—because her sex, in its disturbing difference, its alarming autonomy, gives her control over him (Lurie 166, 169). He is rigid not only in fear but in arousal, which is in part an involuntary response, and as such (Freud to the contrary) is anything but reassuring. It subjugates the male precisely in the part that defines his maleness—and hence also his privileged social position. As sexual aggressor, as snake, the Medusa frighteningly reverses the roles men have worked so hard to construct; she makes him into the passive one. She possesses the phallus. Or, more accurately, the phalluses—a surfeit. Most terrifying of all is the thought that she may have gotten them by cutting them off men, seizing them as trophies of her conquests.

All this helps explain why she can only be slain by a man looking in a mirror—a mirror that is also a shield. Perseus defends himself by substituting a representation, a specular image, for the female's material presence as a sexed, sexual subject.7 In this crucial substitution, “he makes her image for her” and thus secures his own identity as phallic hero by “the specular relations ruling the coherence, the identification, of the individual” (Cixous 47, 53; see also Creed, “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine” 66). Then at a stroke he decapitates her, which is to separate both her intellect and her identity (as it is physiognomically recognizable) from her body, her sex. It is also, as Cixous points out, to silence her, to deprive her of textual power (Cixous 43).8 Perseus masters her, forces her to give him (her) head, and brings in her sex as his trophy and weapon. Thenceforth only men who do not know the specular secret of heroic potency continue to be petrified.

The parallel for Perseus in Metropolis is Rotwang. Though he is a villain and not a hero, he is still the means by which the disturbingly sexual woman is denied an independent subjectivity and made into an object of male control. In his eyes she is not the petrifying other, but the extension of his power. But lest there should be any doubt as to precisely what her image means to men in general, we may recall the sequence's ending. The smoker scene seems to take place both within the “real” world of the film and as a dream within the mind of the protagonist, Freder. This dream comes to him as he lies in bed, recovering from the blackout that was caused by his primal scene view of his father with the robot Maria (whom Freder has mistaken for the real Maria, his love-object).9 The last shot of the dream is of Death, stepping toward the camera, “sweeping his scythe with great swinging strokes,” an image that causes Freder to awaken “shouting in horror” (Sinclair 90). The connections among death, castration, and female sexuality here enact the move by which, as Susan Lurie points out, the male psyche locates the source of mortality, the fragility of life itself, “in a hostile female power/knowledge” (170).

Men's fear of women, or of castration, is nothing new. But the grotesque horror of this scene (at least for the male viewer constructed by the filmic text) signifies a radical insecurity. A part of that insecurity is the male subject's fear that he himself may be a mere object, a stone—the other to the female other, subjected to her wishes, her control, her power to hurt him. It would be foolish to suggest that this insecurity offers any simple or immediate political leverage for women in their struggle for power; it is probably more likely in the short term to be the source of harsher repressions than would otherwise be necessary for the maintenance of male power. What it does suggest, however, is that neither male hegemony nor female invisibility is guaranteed, free of the fray, irresistible or immune to change.

Similar fears emerge in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but in this case it is not the capture of the male gaze, so much as its return, that signifies them. The moment in question is the one when the transformation of Becky Driscoll into a pod-person is completed. Much earlier she has been introduced to us, in Miles Bennell's waiting room, as a classic object of the gaze both of Miles himself and of the male spectator. Now, as they kiss, she opens her eyes from a “fatal” nap to stare through Miles with the classic appearance of the vampirized female, utterly beyond his control. He recoils in a look of terror that is amplified by his voice-over speech as he runs from her: “I've been afraid a lot of times in my life—but I didn't know the real meaning of fear until—until I'd kissed Becky. A moment's sleep and the girl I'd loved was an inhuman enemy, bent on my destruction. That moment's sleep was death to Becky's soul.” She has been “snatched,” like all the other townspeople whose “bodies were now hosts harboring an alien form of life, a cosmic form, which to survive must take over every human man. So I ran, I ran.” From the perspective of gender analysis, the fight for Becky is crucial. Miles loses it when another “sleeps with her,” as it were, possessing her body and implanting in it (that the threat is from seed pods is no accident) an other life, a life of which Miles is neither father nor master. The protagonist has lost control both of the woman's sexual allegiance and of the reproductive process, a loss that is related, as Judith Roof has suggested, “to the literal and cultural castration anxiety expressed in the need for patriarchal control over female sexuality” (4). No wonder he's terrified.10

The film's ideological constructions of humanism versus podism, and of free will and emotion versus mind control and heartlessness, aggressively repress some elements that return with Becky's return of the gaze. First, the notion is that Becky is giving up (or being robbed of) her self-determined identity, her free agency and free choice. What is ignored is that her character has been constructed all the way through by an extremely traditional male version of the female role and of romantic love. At various points she has teased and flirted, been a “good girl” putting Miles off, been properly demure and properly sexual, and, when the chips were down, offered Miles the control over reproduction that is the missing piece in the pattern of patriarchal power: she has declared to him her desire to have “your [not even “our”] children.” In one sense her transformation is only a move from one male master to another. In another sense, however, the most threatening thing about the transformation scene is Becky's expression of preference for the other side, because it suggests the mother's infidelity, the woman's autonomy in matters sexual. Her gaze, which is not so much at Miles as through or beyond him, signifies this autonomy since, as Linda Williams points out, “in the classical narrative cinema, to see is to desire” (83). Becky may be subordinated to one or another male or group of males, but what terrifies Miles the most may be that, despite his efforts, she has changed her mind, and she now chooses another, a different master. Judith Roof nicely summarizes the reason why Becky's return of Miles's gaze instead of his kiss defines fear for Miles: “Not only are the eyes the vampire's sexual power, but the look, that one look is horrible because it signifies a separate consciousness, the alterity which rips us from plenitude to loss” (7). Of course the movie does contain this fear within a structure of some reassurance (though the recuperative ending was added only at the studio's insistence—Siegel himself seems to have been more interested in horror than in its relief). But what the movie's love plot “hails” in the male viewer is precisely the fear—a fear that once again suggests the cracks in the specular façade of patriarchal power.

Female autonomy is again the issue in Alien, though in different terms. Until its final sequence, this film seems to offer, along with its critique of capitalism, a breakthrough in cinematic sexual politics. In Rebecca Bell-Metereau's words, it seems “valuable as one of the first science fiction films to offer woman as a true heroine and survivor,” rather than simply as a helpmate—and hindrance—to the male hero (7). It also downplays the woman's traditional position as fetishistic object of the male gaze, at least in comparison to other Hollywood-style films. This is not merely a matter of presenting a strong female image as a model; rather, it broaches the possibility of significantly repositioning women within the narrative and visual structures of the classic cinema (see De Lauretis 103-57).

Moreover, the scene of Ash's assault on Ripley may be read as having particularly strong feminist overtones, not only in its overall depiction of violence against a woman, but also in elements that draw a connection between such violence and pornography. Pornographic posters hang in the background as he tries to choke her with a girlie magazine. The implications of oral rape are obvious, and audience identification with Ripley and against Ash, as well as the brutal tone of the scene itself, suggest a critique of this vicious attempt to master the strong female, and of a patriarchal system that depends on such actions.11

In this hopeful light the misogynist moment is especially jarring. The scene at issue is the famous one that begins with the heroic Ripley believing she has finally destroyed the alien and stripping for bed, while the camera, taking the point of view of the alien—and of a potential rapist—watches. From this point of view the male spectator is suddenly invited to indulge in the pleasures of scopophilia and, especially, sadism. The latter is emphasized by the implication of sodomy in the fact that the only “indecently” exposed part of Ripley's anatomy is the top of the crack between her buttocks. We recall that Freud “theorize[s] the gaze as a phallic activity linked to the anal desire for sadistic mastery of the object,” and that “the object of the gaze is cast as its [sadistic power's] passive, masochistic, feminine victim” (Moi 134, 180 n. 8).12 Moreover, as my colleague, Susan M. Griffin, has suggested to me, it is by anal rape that men who rape men turn their victims into “feminine” partners—of which more in a moment.

So far, one might try to justify the scene, at least in part, in two ways: first, audience identification has to this point remained strongly with Ripley. For the female spectator this scene might simply increase an identification with Ripley's terror by tapping into the common fear of the rapist hidden in the bedroom. The male spectator, on the other hand, may feel a split between such an alignment—since he, too, has been invited to identify with Ripley—and an alignment with the camera/rapist. To identify with the latter, however, is also to become the alien, and one could argue here for a certain disturbance in and ironization of male pleasure, since the alien has been abhorrent all along (and since, in the denouement, Ripley will triumph over it and eject it into space).13

Thus the scene seems to offer two readings for male spectators: one naively scopophilic, the other ironic. But the text is not allowed to rest in this indeterminacy, for the next segment, showing Ripley in a closet struggling into a spacesuit, admits of no justification by irony that I can construct. Here the viewer/voyeur is not the alien; it is outside the closet, and the camera's position is not attributable to it. This separation of audience from antagonist is crucial to an understanding of the scene's misogynist designs in two ways: it removes any narrative rationale for the camera angle, and it also safely removes the viewer from any identification with the alien's ultimate fate. The camera angle itself, in relation to Ripley's movements, seems chosen purely for maximum display of Sigourney Weaver's body. First, as she lifts her leg into the suit, we get a crotch shot (which, evidently due to the application of something called a “snatch patch” [Kennedy 6] is a depilatory wonder—let's not scare the men). Then as she puts her arms in she thrusts her breasts forward, stretching her short t-shirt to the limit and tempting male viewers to go to the bottom of the screen and look up.14

The question, of course, is why Ripley is treated this way, after being so successfully cast, for so long, in a mold-breaking hero's role. On one level the answer is simply that such a scene will sell tickets. But the reasons it will do so are not so simple, as Mulvey has shown us that visual pleasure in general is not. At stake here is the reassertion of a male dominance that will weaken and stabilize the female and make her safe for patriarchy—as, indeed, she turns out to be in Aliens. Sexual violence can bring uppity Ripley down from her achieved position. This woman who “wants to be a man”—a commander on the space ship, a hero in the narrative—can be mastered just as men sometimes are in homosexual rape; she can be fucked from behind into an enforced femininity, if not by the alien then at least by the camera. To do this, ironically, is to reestablish her as the other within a homosexual economy—not a gay economy, but an economy of the male and masculine exchange, of the phallocratic “closed circuit” (Gallop, Daughter's Seduction 85).

It is also to put back in her traditional (non)place the female spectator who may mistakenly have begun to think that she could be the subject of the viewing experience. This suggests why Ripley's final triumph is on one level not enough to overcome the scene's recapture of the feminine. What is involved is not simply a turn in the plot, but a recovery of the system of woman as visual object—and therefore as replicant, as comforting mirror for man. This recovery defuses the threat she poses as narrative subject. In its disruption of the codes within which the film has been working, however—as in its cinematographic nastiness—the scene allows us to read just how serious that threat is—how intolerable it would be to stay with Ripley's subjectivity. If male hegemony were secure, it could probably countenance her as a mere fantasy, a “perverse” but harmless episode of cross-dressing. Its insecurity is what requires the attack.

Evidence of that insecurity is compounded in the reactions of male reviewers to Ripley. Bell-Metereau (11-12) offers a useful analysis of these, but one that needs to be added to her list is Alex Eisenstein's astonishing reading of Ripley's last fight with the alien as an act of prudery and narcissism, and of “sexual provocation and resistance.” “The whole scene,” he claims, “is charged with a fear of consummation … consumation [sic] being equated, pathologically, with rape” (62).

The pathology here is Eisenstein's own. First he identifies Ripley's disrobing in what she believes to be utter privacy as “provocation,” thus confusing the female character with her objectification by the cinematic apparatus for the pleasure of male spectators. In this willingness to blame the woman, he is a perfect audience for the scene's recuperative, voyeuristic sadism. Then, contrary to his notion that the film sees consummation as rape, he sees rape—and, in more literal plot terms, the death and consumption of the woman—as potential consummation. He thus reveals his own willingness to identify with the predatory alien, whose destruction now becomes an affront to him. Having already called Ripley “hysterical” and claimed that her “appeal verges on the dyke-ish” (59), he sees the ending as espousing “a certain extremist rhetoric of feminism: thou shalt not suffer the male predator to live” (Eisenstein 62-63). Boys just want to have fun, and it's only because of hysterical, dyke-ish, extremist feminism that women don't relax and enjoy it too.15

In Blade Runner, a female figure does just that. When male insecurity erupts in this film, it is overdetermined and exacerbated by certain elements of postmodernism. Perhaps this explains why the film offers more than one choice of misogynist moment, as protagonist Deckard's job includes killing two female replicants, and their “retirements” are both sexual and intensely violent. But the most significant scene in terms of gender relationships is the one in which Rachel comes to Deckard's apartment and they have their first sexual encounter. Throughout this scene, she is insistently and increasingly shot as the object of the male gaze. Two early events are particularly important in motivating the scene's climax. First, Rachel asks Deckard if he himself has ever taken the test that is given to distinguish human beings from replicants—this at a point in the narrative where he seems particularly vulnerable to questions about his identity. Second, after looking at the photographs on his piano (we have been told that replicants often make a fetish of their photographs, as a sign to them that they are human), she lets down her hair so as to resemble a woman in one of the old pictures. This gesture is doubly enticing to him. It softens and “feminizes” her appearance, invoking an utterly traditional code of erotic release and invitation (a code of which the Medusa myth is the dark and fearful inversion). In context it also reproduces a representation of a woman both from Deckard's own past (a symbol of the mother), and from a cultural past when female identity and roles, and hence masculine identity and roles as well, were much more stable.

After complimenting her on her piano-playing, Deckard kisses Rachel on the cheek. He starts to move in for another, fuller kiss, and she gets up to leave. He arrives at the door first, and when she opens it he slams it shut with his fist, trapping her. He looks at her with an angry and aggressive expression, throws her back against a wall, and moves toward her, his jaw set. She trembles at his gaze. He kisses her and says “Now you kiss me.” When she refuses by saying “I can't rely on my …”, he orders her to “Say ‘kiss me.’” Frightened, she says it. He kisses her (and she responds). Still telling her what to say, he says “I want you,” and she repeats it softly. He says “Say it,” and she repeats it in a louder voice. Then she says “Put your hands on me”; he does so, and we assume that they go on from there.

The scene reads very much like date-rape from a male perspective. The female has come to the male's apartment, has let down her hair and played romantic music on his piano, has let herself be kissed. Now, seemingly on the very brink of intercourse, she tries to leave. Angry at her apparent rejection of him, but perhaps even angrier, from the film's point of view, at her fear of something that would be good for her, something that would thaw her out and make her a “real woman,” he violently blocks her exit. Then by forcing on her a script that she “really” wants, he enables her to express the desire she had tried to flee.16

Deckard's violence and Rachel's fear are portrayed so graphically as to suggest the possibility of an ironic reading, one that would attribute to the film a self-conscious recognition and critique of the scene's misogyny. The trouble with such a reading is that Deckard's program ostensibly works for the couple: as Giuliana Bruno suggests, the film as a whole affirms the notion that in the scene “Rachel accepts the paternal figure and follows the path to a ‘normal,’ adult, female sexuality” (71). Nothing later in Blade Runner belies such a reading, and the romantic ending in particular seems to bear it out.

Aside from its supposed “positive” result, the scene's alibis for rape are two-fold, one concerning Rachel, the other Deckard himself. In her case, the implication is that extreme measures are required to enable the replicant to transcend her manufactured identity. In fact, however, she only trades one version of automatism for another. She becomes not a “human” subject but a feminine object, one of Hélène Cixous' “automatons” who, “if they don't actually lose their heads [i.e. their autonomous selves, different from and beyond the control of men] … only keep them on condition that they lose them—lose them, that is, to complete silence” (43). Rachel's silence is not complete, but her voice is that of Echo, able to articulate “her” desire only by repeating a male text (see Modleski, “Feminism and the Power of Interpretation” 127).

The implicit justification for Deckard's behavior is his anguished emotional state, particularly focused on the threat to his identity posed by Rachel and the other replicants. Socially alienated and personally insecure, Deckard is on the verge of becoming Baudrillard's postmodern schizophrenic, who “can no longer produce the limits of his own being, can no longer play nor stage himself, can no longer produce himself as mirror” (133). He seems here to cut the Gordian knot, in a kind of existential assertion not just of need and desire, but of selfhood. This assertion is his reaction, his resistance, to the world of technological capital, simulacra, stylistic pastiche, and waning of affect described by Frederic Jameson in his definitive essay on postmodernism, and brilliantly represented in the visuals and the narrative of Blade Runner.

The problem, of course, is that the woman becomes both the object of the projected anger and the cure for it. Neil Hertz has identified what he calls “a recurrent turn of the mind … the representation of what would seem to be a political threat as if it were a sexual threat” (161). Deckard's action toward Rachel is a related phenomenon: by responding to the broadly cultural threat in terms of a specifically sexual violence, he turns sexuality into a synecdoche for the entire problem of his social identity. This particular troping is no accident, for feminism threatens traditional male identity in a way that is very much related to the threats posed by postmodern culture. Just as the postmodern condition undermines the individual's capacity to “produce himself as mirror” (Baudrillard 133), so too “when woman moves out of her ‘proper’ position … she breaks the mirror of mimesis that establishes the ‘reality’ of male identity” (Doane and Hodges 57). This parallel accounts for another one: the nostalgia produced by both postmodernism and feminism.17 It is a masculine nostalgia for a unified and secure sense of self.

Here, then, is the function of Deckard's misogynist violence: by forcing Rachel to be the image of woman, he can reassert himself as imaginary man. In acquiescing to his script, she becomes a clear instance of what Jane Gallop calls “the guarantee against man's castration anxiety. She has no desires that don't complement his, so she can mirror him, provide him with a representation of himself which calms his fears and phobias about (his own potential) otherness and difference, about some ‘other view’ which might not support his narcissistic overinvestment in his penis” (Daughter's Seduction 70). The male's dominion over himself is created by domination over the female, as he reasserts his control (against her creators') over the means of reproduction. If she is Echo, he recovers himself as Narcissus, reading in the other only his own reflection.18 The male spectator's narrative identification with Deckard offers him the opportunity to share in this triumph of the masculine, and that opportunity is complemented by the classic scopophilic and sadistic pleasures made available in the spectacle of Rachel.

Whatever its limitations, Laura Mulvey's “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” powerfully suggests how the structures of traditional masculinist cinema work to repress the female subject. It also has encouraged the emergence of one of the strongest veins of feminist discourse on film, a vein that seeks the recovery of women's subjectivity both as a covert force within and an overt one beyond the traditional system. From that perspective an analysis of some of the scenes I've discussed might focus more on the positive potential latent in their disclosures of female resistance than on the misogynist reaction to that resistance. In any case, the response to Mulvey has focused primarily and importantly on the female viewer's position and experience. I have tried to contribute to an adjunctive response, one that focuses not on the suppressed possibilities of women, but on the repressed fears of men, the insecurities of male identity and hegemony that at once necessitate and threaten the defensive constructions of patriarchy. These fears and insecurities constitute, on one level, a recognition of that which patriarchy struggles to erase. The hope to be found in analyses such as this one remains theoretical, in more than one sense. Nonetheless, in the attempts to theorize female subjects and historicize male myths it may be of some use to have this sign, however unhappy its forms, that men know—whether we want to or not, we do know—that Man does not exist, and that women do.


  1. Among key works in this vein for my essay are Miriam Hansen's and Linda Williams' articles and Teresa de Lauretis' Alice Doesn't. For overviews of the feminist response to Mulvey, see Hansen's opening pages and Judith Mayne's entire essay. Mulvey's own reconsiderations appear in “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by Duel in the Sun” and “Changes.”

  2. Miriam Hansen has spelled out the limitations for feminism of merely exposing, “from film to film, the textual contradictions symptomatic of the repression of female subjectivity under patriarchy” (27 n. 15). But such exposure may still have a role to play. Perhaps this task can now at least in part be left to men; after all, the contradictions are a masculine production, and hence it seems right for men to work at unmasking them. Moreover, to the degree that the repressive texts address men, something useful may come out of men's attempts to frame their experience in terms of feminist theory. Nonetheless, I take up the project tentatively, since it involves an appropriation of feminist work; I can only hope that the product of my work will seem worth the problems it raises.

  3. Barbara Creed's “From Here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism,” offers a useful point of comparison here: it discusses the postmodernist and feminist “crisis of the subject” in terms of “the sci-fi horror film's current interest” not in copying per se, but in the related issue of “the maternal body and processes of birth” (56).

  4. Thus Eve, Adam's double from out of his own body, at first offers him a specular defense against death-like solitude. But when she escapes her identity with him (and in the Bible story, as in so many others, this occurs when she falls under the sway of a competing male) she gains dangerous power over him and eventually becomes the ghastly harbinger of his death.

  5. In Alien the actual reproduction is male, but is subtly—and homophobically—encoded as gay; hence the reproduction in all four films represents one of patriarchy's others. In any case, the misogynist moment in Alien as in the other films focuses the issues of identity and control, along with the visual apparatus, on a female figure.

  6. Attributions of intentionality are, of course, problematic, and it may be that in this case, as in others, sharp distinctions must be drawn between a scene's address to male spectators and its address to women; the latter may find subversive implications in texts that the former find reassuringly recuperative. The fact that the screenplay of Metropolis is a collaboration between Lang and his wife, Thea Von Harbou, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, may offer an opening into just such a double reading. The opening seems somewhat narrower, however, in light of Von Harbou's political sympathies: when Lang fled the Nazis she stayed on to make films for them (Dadoun 140). In any case, I continue to read the scene as participating in misogyny rather (or more) than ironically commenting on it—at least for the men in the audience.

  7. Anne Greenfeld has suggested to me that in this sense the movie screen is the shield of the would-be Perseuses who constitute the male audience.

  8. The very opposition in Cixous' title (“Castration or Decapitation?”) is a disruption of Freud's account of the Medusa, in which castration is decapitation. Thus Cixous resists Freud's tendency to read everything that happens to female figures only in terms of its reference to the male psyche.

  9. The primal nature of the scene is strongly reinforced by Enno Patalas' reconstruction of “Metropolis, Scene 103,” in which the robot-Maria is specifically identified as a new incarnation of Freder's dead mother. For an analysis of the importance of this and other primal scenes in the film, see Dadoun, especially 144-51.

  10. Part of the complexity of Miles's situation is, as we might expect, Oedipal. The feared father is the ringleader of those whom Miles fights for control of Becky—Dan Kaufman, the psychoanalyst who had been the “subject presumed to know” (Miles had referred his troubled patients to Dan, and sought his explanations of their problems). Interestingly, given his profession and his (possibly) Jewish family name, Dan may be seen as an avatar of another alien who brought a plague to America, the “father of psychoanalysis,” Freud himself (see Gallop, Reading Lacan 58).

  11. Rebecca Bell-Metereau reads this scene as a pro-feminist “indication that Ripley is not going to have sexist stereotypes shoved down her throat” (23). For a somewhat more complex reading of the scene, and the film as a whole, as at once presenting and also containing and managing male hostility and anxiety, see Judith Newton, 295-97.

  12. Perhaps this is one reason why, from Perseus's attack on the Medusa (in which he is usually depicted as “wearing the helmet … of invisibility” [Hertz 191]), to Frank's rape of Dorothy in Blue Velvet (where he screams “Don't fuckin' look at me”), the male assailant resists being seen by his victim.

  13. The alien's gender is ambiguous, and attempts to stabilize it are not likely to be very fruitful. Still, it is clearly phallic here; in Ripley's ensuing battle with it, its head looks like a huge erect penis. Barbara Creed makes a strong argument that it is a “maternal fetish object” signifying “the monstrousness of woman's desire to have the phallus” (“Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine” 68). But in this scene of the woman fighting off rape, the alien/phallus stands as a male assailant.

  14. In her eagerness to save the film as a whole for feminism, Bell-Matereau overlooks key visual elements of this scene that disrupt her parallel of it to the opening shots of Kane emerging from hypersleep. Rape is not implied in the opening's point of view, nor are Kane's sexual parts emphasized. Rather, his appearance is at once androgynous and infantile.

  15. Thus Eisenstein is like the nostalgic contemporary novelists who, according to Doane and Hodges, would “vanquish the Amazon in order to insist upon the naturalness of phallic discourse, male dominance, and female subordination” (43).

  16. Kellner, Leibowitz, and Ryan offer a similar reading of this scene (7), and I second their conclusion that “The striking sexism in a film about exploitation and liberation is revealing and testifies to deep-rooted sexism ingrained in male artists and to the threat that feminism poses for most males” (8).

  17. For the former see Jameson 66-68, for the latter Doane and Hodges' excellent study, in which they point out that “for the nostalgic writer, the impoverishment of contemporary culture is best described in sexual terms” (19). Barbara Creed lays out the relation of these two forms of nostalgia in contemporary film, and her key stylistic example is the revival of film noir, in which Blade Runner actively participates (“From Here to Modernity” 53-56). This raid on the past is especially notable because the noir style originated at a moment (during and after World War II) of similar male disease about female autonomy. Hence in some classics of the genre sexually overdetermined violence towards women is the ultimate solution; consider Neff's shooting of Phyllis at the end of Double Indemnity.

  18. The notion that Deckard turns Rachel into a reassuring specular image and thereby represses and dialogic relation was suggested to me by Dale M. Bauer. I owe a special debt to her and to Susan M. Griffin for advice and help on this project.

Works Cited

Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. 20th Century Fox, 1979.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Ecstasy of Communication.” Trans. John Johnston. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983. 126-34.

Bell-Metereau, Rebecca. “Woman: The Other Alien in Alien.Women World-Walkers: New Dimensions of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Jane B. Weedman. Lubbock: Texas Tech Press, 1985. 9-24.

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Brothers, 1982.

Bruno, Giuliana. “Ramble City: Postmodernism, and Blade Runner.October 41 (1987): 61-74.

Cixous, Hélène. “Castration or Decapitation?” Trans. Annette Kuhn. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7 (1981): 41-55.

Creed, Barbara. “From Here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism.” Screen 28.2 (1987): 47-67.

———. “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” Screen 27.1 (1986): 44-70.

Dadoun, Roger. “Metropolis: Mother-City—‘Mittler’—Hitler.” Camera Obscura 15 (1987): 136-63.

De Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Doane, Janice, and Devon Hodges. Nostalgia and Sexual Difference: The Resistance to Contemporary Feminism. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Eisenstein, Alex. “Alien Dissected: Anatomy of a Monster Movie.” Fantastic Films 13 (1980). 51-63.

Freud, Sigmund. “Medusa's Head.” Trans. James Strachey. Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1963. 212-13.

———. “The ‘Uncanny.’” Trans. Alix Strachey. On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion. Ed. Benjamin Nelson. New York: Harper, 1958.

Gallop, Jane. The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.

———. Reading Lacan. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Hansen, Miriam. “Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship.” Cinema Journal 25.4 (1986): 6-32.

Heath, Stephen. “Male Feminism.” Men in Feminism. Ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith. New York: Methuen, 1987: 1-32.

Hertz, Neil. The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Holt, Terence. “Alien and Other: The Construction of the Subject in Science Fiction.” Twentieth-Century Literature Conference, University of Louisville. Louisville, 26 Feb. 1988. Transcript.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dir. Don Siegel. Allied Artists, 1956.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-92.

Kellner, Douglas, Flo Leibowitz, and Michael Ryan. “Blade Runner: A Diagnostic Critique.” Jump Cut 29 (1984): 6-8.

Kennedy, Harlan. “Weaver, the Woman.” Film Comment 22.4 (1986): 4, 6.

Lurie, Susan. “Pornography and the Dread of Women: The Male Sexual Dilemma.” Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. Ed. Laura Lederer. New York: Morrow, 1980. 159-73.

Mayne, Judith. “Feminist Film Theory and Women at the Movies.” Profession 87. Ed. Phyllis Franklin. New York: Modern Language Association, 1987: 14-19.

Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. Ufa, 1926.

Modleski, Tania. “Feminism and the Power of Interpretation: Some Critical Readings.” Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Ed. Teresa De Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 1986. 121-38.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. New Accents. London: Methuen, 1985.

Mulvey, Laura. “Changes.” Discourse: Berkeley Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 7 (1985): 11-30.

———. “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946).” Framework 15/16/17 (1981): 12-15.

———. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Rpt. in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. 803-16.

Newton, Judith. “Feminism and Anxiety in Alien.” Pp. 293-97 of “Symposium on Alien.” Ed. Charles Elkins. Science Fiction Studies 7 (1980): 278-304.

Patalas, Enno. “Metropolis, Scene 103.” Camera Obscura 15 (1987): 164-73.

Roof, Judith. “Reproductions of Reproduction: Vampires and Aliens.Intertextuality: Literary and Cinematic Representation. Florida State University Comparative Literature and Film Circle. Tallahassee. 30 Jan. 1988. Transcript.

Sinclair, Andrew, ed. Metropolis: A Film by Fritz Lang. Classic Film Scripts. Farncombe, Eng.: Lorrimer, 1973.

Williams, Linda. “When the Woman Looks.” Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams. American Film Institute Monograph Series 3. Frederick: University Publications of America, 1984. 83-99.

John L. Cobbs (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2335

SOURCE: Cobbs, John L. “Alien as an Abortion Parable.” Literature/Film Quarterly 18, no. 3 (1990): 198-201.

[In the following essay, Cobbs asserts that images symbolizing abortion act as a central leitmotif of Alien.]

Ridley Scott's 1979 thriller [Alien] was greeted with no particular fanfare by the reviewers, and if there was a critical consensus it was that the film was at best watchable pabulum—reasonably professionally handled visually and enjoyably scary, but without significant nuance to qualify for discussion as art. Jack Kroll's comment was typical: “It's about time someone made a science fiction thriller that thrills, that has no truck with metaphysics, philosophy or theosophy and just boils everything down to the pure ravishingly vulgar essence of fright.”

Aside from its manifest violence, the only aspect of Alien that attracted much critical fire was what one reviewer called its “gratuitous sexism.” True to a two hundred-year-old tradition of gothic horror, the film relies for its most gut-wrenching effects on the spectacle of a helpless beautiful woman threatened with violence by an unspeakable, inhuman, but quintessentially masculine horror.

Significantly, one scene repeatedly mentioned as a “gratuitous” injection of voyeurism involves Sigourney Weaver's stripping down to her underwear just prior to a final attack by the alien and her subsequent blasting of the creature into space and, presumably, oblivion. The implication seems to be that Alien was overall good, clean, horrible but simple-minded fun, and shouldn't have been compromised by random intrusions of irrelevant sex.

A close look at Alien, however, reveals that not only is sexuality not occasionally intrusive in an otherwise pristine film, but that sexual symbolism and iconography of a singular kind are pervasive throughout the film and may actually be its leitmotif.

What Alien is about is gestation and birth. The sexuality of the film has strong reproductive overtones that distinguish it from the kind of garden variety titillation of most thrillers. The centrality of the birth process to the film is not hard to demonstrate. The very logo of the movie, used incessantly in publicity and advertisement, was the cracked alien “egg” about to “give birth” to the horror within. The central action of the movie details the metamorphic progress of the creature, from egg, to placental parasite clinging to—and then in—its hapless host, to the savage “infant” monster that tunnels its way out of a crewman's body, to the mature lizard creature of the film's closing scenes.

The monster itself is only one part of a systematic syndrome of birth motifs that informs the entire film. The opening shots of the “incubator” room on the Nostromo present the crew diapered in giant bassinets, and the opening action is their “rebirth,” emerging from a fetal sleep into the world of the film. When the alien “infant” blasts its way out of the body of an astronaut, his comrades hold him down while he writhes and grimaces like a woman in labor.

It is the film's pervasive imagery, however, that is most evocative of the birth process. Although a relatively low budget production (without major stars, cast salary was minimal), Alien is one of the most elaborately and meticulously staged of science fiction films. Like the Star Wars series, the movie shows scrupulous attention to graphic detail and a visual imagination that puts it in a class by itself. The intricate creation of the spaceship Nostromo recalls the elaborate model work of Star Wars, but the particular ambiance of the internal settings in Alien is unique. The interiors of both the Nostromo and the derelict spacecraft on which the alien egg is found are a complex of pipes, tubes, and ducts that leave the casual viewer with a sense of disquieting familiarity. Only after we watch a while do we realize that the dominant motif of both these craft is the interior of the human body—the windings and curvings of organs and glands. (Ingmar Bergman said once that he attributed the peculiar cinematographic quality of Cries and Whispers to his idiosyncratic envisioning of the interior of the human soul as “a soft red membrane.”) Alien achieves a strange balance between the cold, steely world of technology and forms constantly evocative of flesh—erotic flesh in particular. Not since Flash Gordon has the world of science fiction been so erotically evocative. Vaginal doorways, cervical mazes on the walls, phallic sculptures on the alien starship, and bulbous mammary projections everywhere—virtually every scene works itself out within a matrix of sexual suggestiveness.

This is hardly surprising. The art director and set designer of Alien is a Swiss painter named H. R. Giger. His work, although familiar to the readers of Omni and avant-garde European art magazines, has not received widespread American circulation, perhaps because it consistently borders on pornography. Reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, Giger is himself something of a fin-de-siècle work of eldritch art. He slinks about in black with glowering eyes (one suspects a touch of phosphorous like the hound of the Baskervilles), and is an avowed devotee of the interrelated “mythos” of Cuthulu mumbo-jumbo popularized by sf/horror eminence gris H. P. Lovecraft.

Giger's particular speciality is genitalia, male and female, a subject he presents incessantly. One particularly dramatic painting, Penis Landscape, depicting ten sets of copulating male and female genitals, has been distributed packaged with the rock group The Dead Kennedys' album Frankenchrist and is the object of a celebrated pornography prosecution in California. Penetration—and its reciprocal action, tubular extraction—is the visual and thematic focus of most Giger paintings. Repeatedly, Giger depicts creatures which are part human, part monster, part machine in acts of copulation, sexual violation, or sexual activity defying categorization (is there a medical/scientific term for anal fellatio by robots?). This primal triad—man, monster, machine—in multiple combinations and permutations recurs obsessively in Giger's works. The text accompanying a popular magazine treatment of his art is not inaccurate: “Giger's years as an architectural draftsman led him to explore the startling similarities between the structure of the human body, on the one hand, and that of technological equipment, on the other. His resulting machinelike humans, or ‘biomechanoids,’ have had a profound influence on present-day science fiction.” Sexual man (and woman) for Giger is not just in the grip of malevolent technology, he is often an extension of it. Flesh is manifest in both human and hideously nonhuman form, and there are no dividing lines between man, monster, and machine.

The violation of the female is particularly evident in Giger's work. Women—or, at least, part women—are locked into complex machines replete with tubes, wires, chains, and straps. Splayed and pinned, often with legs and arms vulnerably spread, the female body is both a target and a fountainhead for sexual motion. Giger's female figures are either penetrated at every orifice, or expelling fetal or phallic forms in obscene birth parody from groin and mouth. The artist speaks of his own “birth trauma” nightmares—dreams in which he finds himself horrifyingly enclosed in “tubes and passages,” and the result is a sequence of “birth” paintings guaranteed to turn the stomach. Notable is “Stillbirth Machine,” a grisly vision of a naked woman inextricably bound to a massive, intricate instrument which apparently extracts from her groin a dead, fetal thing. Like a number of Giger's works, it is suggestive of Kafka's disturbing “In the Penal Colony,” a story in which a master torturer invents the ultimate machine for inflicting punishment—a tour de force of technology—and, finding no victims for it, gives himself to the mechanism as a “moral” and aesthetic gesture.

Giger's favorite images of horror are reptilian, as is the ultimate monster in Alien. Scaly, tentacled things with flat, fishy eyes, claws, and snaky appendages slither through his paintings. Some resemble the classic image of the devil in medieval woodcuts, with horned head, protruding tongue, and bestial fangs. Others are more reminiscent of saurians, snakes, and more loathsome life forms. In painting after painting they ravage helpless or cooperating females.

The centrality of the birth process in a hideous and quasi-human form in Giger's work has transferred itself to become the primary metaphor of Alien. This is particularly evident in the core story of the film. From the beginning, the protagonist of Alien is the starship Nostromo and its collective crew. With the important exception of Ash, the science advisor who turns out to be an android—not human—the crew is commonplace, familiar through the opening scenes. Unglamorous, “real” astronauts, they live together in gruff camaraderie, grousing about food, teasing each other, dreaming of sex and pay and the end of the trip. Into this workaday world the alien intrudes, its presence commanded by the godlike “mother,” the all-powerful company/government under whose auspices and direction the commercial space voyage operates. From the first the alien is unwanted by all but Ash, an inside “man” planted by “mother”.

After its initial existence as an egg on a deserted planetoid, the monster finds its first fleshy incarnation within the body of an astronaut. Revealed by fluoroscope like an embryo within a uterus, it is a threatening and unwanted invader inside the body not only of the unfortunate victim, but also of the Nostromo and its crew, who try desperately to remove the parasite without killing their luckless companion in the process.

From the beginning, then, the creature both is sustained by its host(s) and represents a life-threatening, biologically incompatible entity within the ship. Even before the shocking explosion of the alien from the guts of its crewman “host,” the creature demonstrates it chemical incompatibility when its “blood” is discovered to be intensively corrosive, making injuring the thing extremely dangerous. This alien has a very nasty rh factor.

As the alien advances through its hideous and progressively lethal stages of maturation, the crew wages the central struggle to destroy it on two fronts: one against the creature itself, the other against “mother,” with whom the ship communicates by computer, and who shows an increasingly proprietary concern for making sure the creature is delivered “safely” to the parent company, presumably so that it may be studied and used for profit (along with strong feminist leanings, Alien exhibits distinct Marxian biases). At first “mother” commands that the alien life form be assumed into the body of the Nostromo against the will of the fearful crew, then flatly refuses the crew's desperate begging to be allowed to destroy the lethal thing, and finally fights desperately through its controlled android Ash to sabotage every effort to rid the spaceship of the horror.

The crew is at last reduced to a single human—Ripley, most significantly a woman (it is interesting how close the name is to that of the director, Ridley Scott). By this time the creature has assumed its final form: no more a gelatinous ooze, a slithering amniotic and amorphous fetal being, or a curvy blob, but a distinctly masculine reptile with jaws and claws, and an obscenely phallic thrusting “member” that runs in and out of its slavering mouth in an unmistakably copulatory and invariably fatal piston-like action. For a time the creature's survival is pleaded by the technological panderer, Ash, who speaks for “mother,” first begging Ripley not to destroy the monster, then attacking her physically in an effort to save the fledgling horror, which he admires for the “perfection of its hostility.” Ripley, however, now realizes the inevitable fatality of “delivering” the creature, and she is determined to reject “mother's” command. She destroys Ash in a battle in which “he” attempts to impale her orally on a rolled copy of Playboy. Then she expels the creature from the body of her spacepod, having it sucked out by the vacuum of space.

Central to the entire struggle is the concept of the “horror within,” the terrible threat that is the more terrible because it invades the ostensibly safe confines of the self. Whether dealing with the body of an astronaut, or the body of a spaceship, Alien is hardly original, of course, in exploring the dichotomy between inner, “safe” space, and outer, “alien” space. HAL, the fifth column computer of 2001, the “monsters from the id” of Forbidden Planet, and (in a neatly perverse twist) the bacteria who violate the sanitary saucers of The War of the Worlds—all establish an “inner” sanctity violated by a deadly pollution from the outside. The concept of a subversive “danger within” is, therefore, not new to the horror/sci fi genre, but the nature of the life-threatening, interior “other” in Alien is of a particular sort: it is fetal. The dramatic action of the film develops the tense struggle of a heroine to rid herself and her environment of a gestating lifeform, the maturation of which spells disaster. And from the film's pervasive gynecological imagery, through the moral tension between a young woman and her “mother” over the validity of her ridding herself of her internal burden, to the final vacuum expulsion—the fundamental leitmotif of Alien is clearly abortion.

The producers of Alien, incidentally, were apparently so taken with the idea of a science fiction/horror film based on the birth, gestation, and destruction of incipient alien life that they based the film's sequel, Aliens, on the idea as well. In that film Ripley does assume the role of surrogate mother, in this case to a little girl threatened by a manifestly female alien monster incubating a whole ghastly nursery of developing eggs. Aliens concludes with Ripley wiping out the lot of them with a flame thrower in a massive job-lot abortion just before they hatch.

As to the political and social implications of seeing Alien as a study of abortion, I am hesitant to draw conclusions. Ridley Scott is hardly an ideologue, and little about this film indicates that it is subliminally preaching, either “prochoice,” or “right-to-life.” It may be suggested, though, that if most couples anticipated a bundle of joy along the lines of H. R. Giger's ghastly reptilian, even fewer pregnancies would go full term.

Pat Dowell (review date 1990)

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SOURCE: Dowell, Pat. “Black Rain: Hollywood Goes Japan Bashing.” Cineaste 17, no. 3 (1990): 8-10.

[In the following review, Dowell contends that Black Rain is an expression of American economic insecurity in the face of a perceived Japanese economic superiority.]

One of the many television news stories after the California earthquake in October 1989 examined Japan's quake readiness. There, if a temblor strikes, children know what to do “by rote,” according to the network reporter, who would have undoubtedly said “by heart” if these had been spunky American kids or Frenchmen or Laplanders or anybody but the next generation of profit-hungry automatons eager to increase the U.S. trade deficit.

The reporter also noted that Japanese sympathy for San Francisco quickly turned to boasting about their own (higher) construction standards for bridges and buildings and their widely espoused system of readiness that extends to anchoring office desks and home bookcases. Individuals, the reporter explained, are encouraged by ominous demonstrations of potential quake damage to “get with the program.” Another telling choice of coercive metaphor, this one military, it explains Japanese cooperation and superiority as imposed by authority—and suggests, in an almost subliminal way, that the Japanese have paid a high price in personality and freedom for their current ascendancy over the U.S.

If U.S. media makers feel so compelled to hold up America's end by such subtle manipulations of news stories that don't even concern Japanese-American relations, imagine what Hollywood must be up to.

In fact, Hollywood has been surprisingly reticent. Not a day goes by now without some public rumination in newspapers and magazines on the nature of Japanese society and its differences from the U.S., but few mainstream movies have tackled these issues. In 1986 Gung Ho found the Japanese owners of a midwestern U.S. auto plant and their exhausted American employees ultimately united in common effort, after they learned from each other, as in any prewar Frank Capra paean to the melting pot. The Asians taught discipline and pragmatism; the Americans provided guts and endurance, and an unwillingness to quit under any circumstances.

But that was 1986, and, in just three years, the tone of things has changed. Amused accounts of quaint Japanese customs and polite innovations in management have given way to cautionary reports on crime, racism, and corporate despotism. It isn't just a case of American reporters digging deeper, but of a general desperation abroad in the land. It's becoming important to discredit Japan, but America's own rattling crises make it increasingly difficult to make the competition look so bad.

Nevertheless we try. “Containing Japan” one headline reads in a respectable magazine. The Washington Post, on the other hand, announces “the Japan-Bashers Are Poisoning Foreign Policy,” but then counters with the subhead, “For Every American Blasting Tokyo's Trade Policy, There's a Japanese Deriding a Lazy, Mongrel U.S.” Nowhere in the article does a Japanese deride a “mongrel” U.S.

The article does state, however, that, according to a recent poll, sixty-eight percent of Americans fear the economic power of Japan more than the military power of the Soviet Union (who says political economy has made no inroads in American education?). This is the climate into which rides Ridley Scott's new movie, Black Rain, dressing a familiar cops-and-robbers plot in the trappings of current foreign-policy paranoia.

Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas) is a New York cop in the current fashion—alone, possibly alcoholic, betrayed by a wife who couldn't stand his devotion to the tawdry and underpaid pursuit of law and order. He is betrayed too by the system he serves, which suspects him of stealing money from a drug dealer. If life weren't unfair enough, even his local lunch counter is beset by loud, uncouth Italian gangsters and their new Japanese friends (as if to say, it's not enough the Japanese are buying Columbia Pictures and Rockefeller Center, they want the Godfather too).

During Nick's hurried standup lunch, Sato (Yusaku Matsuda), a cool killer, walks in and slits the Asian guests' throats. After a chase, he is arrested by Nick, who is then assigned with his charming partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) to deliver Sato to the Osaka police. At the airport, Nick loses Sato to guys with official badges and papers he can't read. Embarrassed by the unconcealed contempt of the Japanese police, he muscles his way into the Osaka investigation, stuck with a chaperone he perceives as timid, a detective named Masahiro Matsumoto (Ken Takakura).

Nick seeks the help of an American who works as a hostess in a nightclub, Joyce (Kate Capshaw in a vestigial role clearly inserted for the value of a female name on the poster). She tells him that a mob war is underway, that young Sato is challenging his Yakuza boss, Sugai (Tomisaburo Wakayama), Charlie meets a brutal death, giving Conklin the necessary license to kill that most American action heroes require, and, in an effort to get his man, Nick joins forces with Sato's enemy Sugai. At the bloody showdown Masahiro comes to the aid of his new can-do American friend, who repays him by turning a new leaf in integrity as he heads back to Manhattan. Together they deliver their man to the Osaka police.

Many critics dismissed Black Rain as racist (“Rambo Mike” was how one newsweekly titled its review), which it is, sometimes quite openly. How else to interpret Nick Conklin's conversation with expatriate Joyce, in which he urges her to go home to America and says, “Sometimes you just have to choose sides.” It is inconceivable such a line might be said to an expatriate in a competitive European country.

But this is hardly simple racism. Black Rain is more a signpost on which Hollywood has tacked up the shifting conflicts and insecurities that fuel American rivalry with Japan. While the screenplay is busy trading on old clichés about Japanese conformity and imitativeness, director Ridley Scott, perhaps unintentionally, undermines the usual American superiority by portraying Osaka as an invincible juggernaut ready to eat soft, whining Michael Douglas alive. This is a movie that cracks under its own weight of mythic freight, and it shows American notions about America and Japan poised for change, not necessarily for the better.

The producers, Sherry Lansing and Stanley R. Jaffe, and the influential star, Michael Douglas, are fond of social commentary, especially the kind that conveys and simultaneously condemns the same message, such as their last outing together, Fatal Attraction. All have claimed the East and West meet and shake hands in Black Rain, and superficially they're right. Nick Conklin grows to respect Masa, the honest cop played by Takakura. And perhaps Masa is ready by film's end to amend his quick assessment of tattered American hegemony: “Music and movies are all America is worth. We make the machines and the future.” Nick confesses his stealing to Masa, and is properly chastened by Masa's admonition, with regard to the dead Charlie, “If you steal, you disgrace him. And yourself. And me.” Nick even makes the ultimate sacrifice of turning over the booty that started the killing, the counterfeit dollar plates he snatched during the final firefight.

Counterfeit dollar plates? Well, yes, the Japanese titans have been fighting over ownership of the technology that would produce bogus American goods—U.S. currency—in a mythically self-flattering resurrection of the old idea (one that died with the birth of the Toyota and the Trinitron) that Japan is a copycat manufacturer preying on American ingenuity and fooling American consumers.

The villain of the piece, Sato, is himself a bogus American product, a Yankee-ized entrepreneur who has contempt for the honorable code of the Yakuza. Japan's gangster clans, of which the imposing Sugai is a respected leader. Sugai hates Sato in part because he has been shaped by America's postwar influence. The aging Sugai makes no pretense of his hatred for the U.S. He tells Nick about the black rain that fell on Osaka after the B-29s flattened it in World War II, and thunders, “I'm paying you off.”

The phrase is ambiguous. With fake money, he's paying America back (favoring a suspicion of the U.S. right wing) and he's also buying into the corruption of Nick, who has come to him with a proposition after Charlie's murder. Nick offers to kill Sato for Sugai, and receives weapons along with a place at the summit meeting where he can pick off his target. Sato's double-cross beats him to the draw, however, and Sugai is killed. After a punishing fistfight, Nick decides to take Sato in rather than kill him.

Sugai's eagerness to buy Nick, America's surrogate and champion, is just one more case of Japan's throwing its billions around without regard to local effect (rather like U.S. business interests have always done). It marks a far deeper vein of racism than Black Rain's superficial clichés about the Japanese national character, such as the lockstep of the police ranks when compared to an American self-starter's ingenuity.

Nick's reproach that Masa wouldn't know what to do if he had an original idea also has a tired and unconvincing ring. For one thing, consider the man who utters it. In another decade Lee Marvin or Clint Eastwood might have played this role, but in the Eighties, America's champion is Michael Douglas—weak-chinned, unable to muster an assured tough guy manner, given to impotent screaming tantrums rather than the ominous and commanding whisper of his predecessors. Nick is corrupt, but nothing in the writing suggests he should be weak as well, and yet the casting of Michael Douglas makes that inevitable.

Ridley Scott plays up Douglas's impotence at every turn. Nick is dwarfed by Osaka's skyline and its interiors (a cavernous nightclub and, the very emblem of Japanese superiority, a working steel mill). He is threatened by stainless steel trucks barreling along crowded streets, often as seen through the forced perspective of a telephoto lens, so that they seem to be right on top of him and as big as skyscrapers. Nick hasn't got a chance against this Osaka, and in fact the scene of his final victory is rural, a wintry vineyard.

Nick also doesn't have a chance against Ken Takakura's Masa. The Japanese superstar is a far more accomplished actor than Douglas, and he invests this quiet, self-effacing man—something of a change from Takakura's most famous tough-guy roles—with a winning dignity. Buy that man a Miller! Takakura is Black Rain's lip service to the good Japanese,’ but he's the only one in a mass of faceless bureaucrats and henchmen. As in crime-crazy America, the henchmen seem a lot better off. They get the deluxe high-tech nightclubs and Frank Lloyd Wright houses, while the cops get jam-packed old office buildings, furnished with battered desks, Forties plush, and antimacassars.

Black Rain's furious contradictions reveal more insecurity about America than about Japan. Japan itself is conceived in this movie as an alien nation, something of a monolith in its otherness. In fact, I was reminded often of the brutalizing respect John Ford paid to Native American tribes in his films. In a world of masculine values. Ford's heroes couldn't afford not to give the Indians their due (the price of under-estimating them was a terrible death). For Ford this realization functioned as a mythic rendering of separate-but-equal. There are traces of that grudging respect in Black Rain.

Ford's Indians had their own rules and a sense of honor, but they weren't ‘us’ and never would be (the ethnocentric conceit is that they want to be). In Black Rain as well, the ultimate impossibility of that transformation is played out when Sato, the wannabe American, holds his powwow with Sugai and offers his fealty and contrition by indulging the Yakuza tradition of severing his little finger. It is a mutilating ritual, with overtones of castration, supposedly unthinkable to ‘us,’ that reveals Sato as forever alien.

It is this deeply racist fear of self-immolation that links Black Rain most profoundly to an American (movie) tradition. It also animated Ford's Westerns. At the heart of Nick Conklin's hysterically threatening brush with Japan is the nightmare, not of being bested, but of being transformed: that ‘we’ will become ‘them.’ It used to happen only to women and children (all those irredeemable white captives), but in Black Rain it is a grown-up white man who is vulnerable. Nick Conklin, in every sense of the phrase, goes to Japan to save face.

Suzanne Moore (review date 2 February 1990)

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SOURCE: Moore, Suzanne. “Sun Rises in the East.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 86 (2 February 1990): 44.

[In the following review, Moore notes how Scott portrays American individualism in contrast with Japanese collectivism in Black Rain.]

Is it really fair to compare a film made in one of the poorest countries in the world with a $37 million production by one of Hollywood's flashiest directors? No of course not. But Yaaba, made in Burkina Faso, a country with no filmmaking infrastructure will have to compete with Ridley Scott's Black Rain. Such is the democracy of the marketplace.

In fact this week's releases seem deliberately chosen to highlight the inequities of “the system”. First we have the big boys. Brian de Palma's Casualties of War is another hugely expensive guilt-tripping Vietnam movie. Then there is Scott's Black Rain set in Japan, Yaaba from Africa and Piravi from Kerala in India. Yaaba and Piravi will, no doubt, be lumped together as “Third Cinema” though actually Kerala has a thriving film culture unlike Burkina Faso.

Yaaba, directed by Idrissa Ouedraogo, with its clear images, its wide open spaces and faith in storytelling is a million miles away from the cluttered frames of Hollywood. Yaaba means grandmother and the plot concerns the relationship between an old woman and a young boy. But underneath the deceptive simplicity of the film we see a complex portrait of village existence. Though these people have nothing—no electricity, few possessions—Ouedraogo never simplifies their emotional life.

One wonders what Ridley Scott would have done in the brilliant light of this red desert landscape. Could he bear one frame of a film not to be stuffed with things and reflections of things? How could he even contemplate a movie without smokey light filtering though grey-blue venetian blinds? For Ridley is a former ad man, the designer director par excellence. This obsession with surface has produced some of the best and most influential movies of the last ten years. Both Blade Runner and Alien looked fantastic and had the added extra of exciting plots. Black Rain simply looks fantastic.

It is set largely is Osaka, which will no doubt interest those who are in the business of constructing the cyberpunk canon. Blade Runner's vision of a future American city was swarming with Asiatic influence and Chiba City, one of the locations of William Gibson's seminal novel Neuromancer, was also in Osaka. Yet Scott's explanation for choosing Osaka over Tokyo is based on practicalities—it was an easier place to film in. Here, in this empire of neon signs, the previous influences of his films can be foregrounded and you can't help feeling that, like so many of us, he is far happier dealing with Japan as the future rather than dealing with it in the present.

The plot itself is as old as they come. Two New York cops witness a murder and are assigned to take the killer back to the Japanese police in Osaka. It's another cop-out-of-water scenario with the culture clash played for all its worth. Michael Douglas plays the hard cop Nick, an unlikeable macho bore who watches his partner, the soft cop, get disembowelled by a gang of Japanese maniacs on motorbikes. They are all members of the Yakusa, “the Jap mob” which is crudely portrayed here as a more exotic version of the Mafia. After the death of his buddy, Nick reluctantly teams up with his Japanese counterpart, the cautious and honest Masahiro and ends up teaching him a thing or two about American philosophy summed up here as “sometimes you have to go for it”.

As dubious and racist as this film is, full of lines like “Isn't there a nip in this building who speaks fucking English?” (which hasn't stopped it being acclaimed in Japan itself), it is undeniably first-class entertainment. It is slick, loud and full of thoroughly enjoyable, mindless violence. Every frame is crammed with surface and superficial detail, steam and light. Every puddle is spotlit, every pair of sunglasses dazzling.

Yet underneath all these shining surfaces there is an emptiness that is not just the emptiness of a formula plot but a sense of foreboding. America doesn't know how to deal with Japan. It cannot accept that it is no longer itself the centre of the world. And it cannot begin to accept that it has been beaten at its own game, rather than by some commie plot. Japan has made capitalism work.

The central relationship of Black Rain, between Nick and Masahiro, is a crumbling assertion of American superiority. Nick cannot come to terms with the Japanese code—the stereotype of membership of a group being more important than individual desires. Nick sees Japan as a mere imitator, a country full of repression and with no originality. There is nothing more alien to the American ethos than the idea of a voluntary rather than an enforced collectivity. Nick's is the desperate voice of rugged individualism, a man who refuses “to play by the rules”. Japan is full of rules that are incomprehensible to him. And then we have the Yakusa who are actually fighting over counterfeit money. It is almost an admission that Japan cannot only produce goods more efficiently than the west, but that it can now make its own dollars. America is redundant which is why this movie makes such a conspicuous and botched effort to turn us back to the American way.

Outside the fiction of the film, Japan is actually buying into the fiction-making machine of Hollywood. Sony has recently taken over some of the major studios. As the sun rises in the east, the American debt crisis grows. The only female character in the film, naturally enough a glamourous American bargirl on the make, describes her relationship with the country as a love-hate one.

But Black Rain is full of very little love for Japan. It is fear that drives it, and the Japanese themselves are portrayed as the ultimate Aliens. Instead the film mouths its t-shirt slogan, “Sometimes you have to go for it”, as jingoistic compensation for what even the American government is having to come to terms with: that sometimes it's too late. Someone else has already gone for it and is winning.

Ridley Scott and Amy Taubin (interview date July 1991)

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SOURCE: Scott, Ridley, and Amy Taubin. “Ridley Scott's Road Work.” Sight and Sound 1, no. 3 (July 1991): 18-19.

[In the following interview, Scott discusses the filming of Thelma and Louise, the movie's role as a feminist film, and his future projects.]

Its high spirits and dazzling good looks notwithstanding, Thelma and Louise suggests that the situation of American women is dire indeed. When Louise (Susan Sarandon) comes to the rescue of Thelma (Geena Davis) and kills the man who's attempting to rape her, few in the audience feel that murder is unjustified. And when Louise rejects Thelma's suggestion that they go to the police with a despairing, “A hundred people saw you dancing cheek to cheek. Who's going to believe us? What kind of world do you live in?”, we know she's probably right about that too.

Opening in the US on 24 May, one day after the Supreme Court handed down a decision barring employees of federally financed planning clinics from any discussion of abortion with their patients (thus drastically curtailing access for poor women to abortion), Thelma and Louise has turned out to be amazingly prescient. In a society which punishes women for their sexuality, women's reproductive freedom is as tenuous as their legal redress against crimes of rape and physical assault. David Souter, the recently appointed Supreme Court judge who cast the deciding vote in the family planning clinic case, wrote an opinion a few years ago against the complainant in a rape case characterising her behaviour as “provocative”. Why should Thelma and Louise expect to be justly treated in his blame-the-victim court? What choice for them then except to become outlaws—and movie legends.

Ridley Scott, director and co-producer of Thelma and Louise, knows how important a test case it is for ‘women-driven’ material. The film has everything that's needed for a traditional box office success. Everything, that is, except a male protagonist.

The following is excerpted from a ninety minute interview with Scott just prior to Thelma and Louise's US opening. At that point, the film was already showing signs of critical success. (It opened to enthusiastic reviews in both the local and national press.) Its commercial prospects were, however, far from settled. And Scott, while pleased to be regarded as something of an auteur (on the basis of Blade Runner and Alien), is careful to present himself as responsible Hollywood businessman, making movies for mainstream audiences.

Scott began his career at the BBC, first as an art director and then as director of Z Cars. He left after three years to form his own TV commercial production company. Twelve years later, he started directing feature films. He says that one result of having made thousands of commercials is that he doesn't have to think about visuals—it just happens.

“I have a development group in Los Angeles. We have our net cast out for ideas. They can come from newspaper articles, from conversations, from books. Also, there's a snow storm of scripts, most interestingly from new writers. We met Callie Khouri and she presented this script [Thelma and Louise] and I loved it. At that moment I was involved in another large-scale project—only two or three weeks in, thank God. So I went through this odd process—which I'm going to have to go through sooner or later anyway because I'm curious about producing—of interviewing other directors for Thelma and Louise. The more I talked to them, the more possessive I became. Directing is partly a job to change things if they're wrong. But I felt the overall balance of the script shouldn't be tampered with—we did a bit of work with it, but basically it was all there. I felt so protective that I decided that I should direct it myself”.

In that Thelma and Louise is driven by characters rather than events, it's a departure for Scott. Like his best films, however, it situates an allegorical narrative within a realistically detailed visual world. When one walks out of Thelma and Louise, one feels, as after Blade Runner and Alien, that one's been in a place one won't forget.

“It's a far less exotic world than Alien, although I tried to make the heartland look as exotic as possible. To us Europeans, it is. The scale of things is so vast. We can eulogise about roads with telegraph poles and Americans think we're crazy. I looked for days to find one. They don't actually exist very much any more, but they are very much part of what I believe is the American landscape. Oddly enough, I found it in Bakersfield (Southern California).

“When I started off on this project, I decided to take the actual journey that they take in the script because your educational process begins there. When I location hunt, I'm not just looking at locations: I'm meeting people, I'm hearing voices and accents. So the production designer and the location hunter and I drove the route. We started in Arkansas and drove to the Grand Canyon. I couldn't haul 149 people around for three minutes in Texas and four in Arkansas, but I had a brief education on what everything looked like. I felt I had to find definitive examples of the landscape they passed through because it's allegorical and I felt that their journey, the last journey, should be part of the allegory. I felt it was better to lean to the vanishing face of America, which is Route 66, rather than the new face of America, which is malls and concrete strips”.

Although Thelma and Louise is obviously a Ridley Scott film, the clarity and wit of the script and sense of the irrepressible in Davis' and Sarandon's performances suggest a high degree of collaboration between director, actors and writer. It's clear from Scott's description of working with the actors that he realises just how crucial to the film their performances are.

“I spend a long time casting. Finally the casting process comes down to a gut decision. There are a lot of actors out there who will give you a good cold read and I used to be impressed by that, but then that's all you'd get, no surprises. I'm always hoping the actors I've cast are going to surprise me about where this character is going to go through the envelope—whether at that moment it's going to be maniacal, or funny, or subdued.

“There's always an element of taste involved in that, even if it's bad taste, and it's my job to adjust that—to be the barometer. But I want it to come out of them. Therefore, we talk a lot. We sit around the table with a script. I want to discuss their character and how they will function. The best sign is when the actor starts to get possessive about the role and says, ‘Well I wouldn't do that’, even if it's about how they dress. ‘I wouldn't wear shoes like that’. Once that happens I know they are starting to key into who they are. Then we start reading. I never ask them to read with, to use a corny term, feeling. It's usually a flat read. Then they say, ‘I can't say this, what I'd like to say is this’, and I agree, unless it affects the drama or the humour. It becomes a partnership, so by the time we start doing the lines, we're very close to shooting.

“When we walk on the floor, we've usually already negotiated how the scene is going to go and I've already done a kind of down and dirty lighting job. Then we do an immediate rehearsal, but with them saving it—I don't want to see it [meaning the performance]. We walk around and make some chalk marks and fix the focus. Then I say, ‘Do you feel comfortable?’ It's not like everything's cast in stone. If it's wrong, it's wrong, and we do it again. Then they go off and get made up and they come back and we shoot.

“So there's this adrenaline, which I've found is really important. There's a spontaneity, and what I discovered is that both girls prefer it this way. Susan always used to laugh, and say, ‘I'm the money actress. You don't see it until you say action and then you pay me’. I think there's nothing worse than when you rehearse, rehearse until every ounce of adrenaline is gone. That's when you end up with forty takes trying to make it look spontaneous. If we did five or six takes, it was a lot. Invariably if you've got the right people involved, you're going to start seeing it on the first or second take”.

Not unlike Clint Eastwood, Scott has been dragged by his interest in strong women characters into some unpredictable political places. While Thelma and Louise is definitely a feminist film, Scott is no theoretician. And his conversation reveals a couple of contradictions that he hasn't thought through, much less resolved. He seems surprised, for example, when I object to his including the Sean Young character in Blade Runner, a robot whose sexuality is programmed by the Harrison Ford character, in his pantheon of strong women. He's similarly taken aback, although more than willing to hear me out, when I tell him that I, like many of the strong women I know, feel betrayed by the ending of Thelma and Louise.

Given that a handful of open-ended outlaw films already exist, why should Thelma and Louise not have been allowed to live out their days in Mexico drinking margueritas? Or conversely—given that the temper of the times makes it not unlikely that women who defend themselves against rapists or otherwise defy the patriarchy are risking death—shouldn't we be forced to look at Thelma and Louise's bloody bodies at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and thus to realise our complicity in their death.

Such a depressing ending, however, might have alienated precisely the audience that Scott claims he's trying to reach, and probably would have destroyed the film's chances at the box office. Instead, we get tragedy with an upbeat ending. Via the freeze frame, Thelma and Louise become legends without having to go through all the grisly stuff of dying. Scott disagrees.

“There's a price for everything”, he counters, adding that this applies to men as well as women. “From the first moment of reading the script, I never had a second thought about the ending. It just seemed appropriate that they carry on the journey. It's a metaphorical continuation. The film's not about rape. It's about choices and freedom. The only solution is to take your choice which is to take your life.”

Perhaps it's measure of how radical the film is that no ending feels satisfactory. Along with rapists, condescending husbands, irresponsible boyfriends, thieving lovers, lecherous truckers, sadistic cops and paternalistic detectives, Thelma and Louise leaves narrative closure by the wayside.

Scott is currently in production on Christopher Columbus, with Gérard Depardieu as the explorer. Scott's description of Columbus as “the first astronaut” might suggest a Hollywood pitch, though the film is in fact very much a European production.

“I find America terribly stimulating, but my home is in England. I cut and mixed Thelma and Louise in Pinewood. That's been my pattern with [post-producing] all my films. The journalist community in the UK criticises us for opting out. I haven't opted out, but there's no film industry in the UK. I simply go where I can make films—and not at such a mini-budget that it impedes what I want to do.

“The first film that really gonged me was David Lean's Great Expectations. But there's no point in making a movie if you don't have a market for it. Film is too expensive for that. It shouldn't be insular.

“I'm hoping that at some point in the near future Europe may open up. I'm hoping that will happen with Columbus. We've financed it by selling it territory by territory, like the independents have been doing for years—like Dino DeLaurentis. And then we came to the US for distribution.

Columbus is going to be very unpopular. We're going to have every Indian society after us for racism. But his vision was very extreme—even more extreme than NASA's and more daunting. His crew believed he was going to sail to the edge of the world. The NASA people, at least, have their co-ordinates when they send up a mission.”

Janet Abrams (review date July 1991)

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SOURCE: Abrams, Janet. Review of Thelma and Louise, by Ridley Scott. Sight and Sound 1, no. 3 (July 1991): 55-6.

[In the following review, Abrams comments that, despite Thelma and Louise's apparent celebration of feminine freedom, the film actually expresses an oppressive attitude toward women who “take their lives into their own hands.”]

Trapped in a claustrophobic marriage to carpet salesman and giant-sized infant Darryl, Thelma Dickinson is coaxed into joining her friend Louise Sawyer, a harassed coffee-shop waitress, on a weekend spree [in Thelma and Louise]. The trunk of Louise's car overloaded with Thelma's luggage, they set off in high spirits, stopping at a bar in Arkansas on their first evening. Thelma is picked up by bar-fly Harlan; when she rejects his advances he becomes violent, and Louise arrives in the parking lot to find her missing friend being raped. After a venomous exchange with Harlan, she pulls the gun which Thelma has packed for self-protection and shoots him dead.

The women flee, Thelma distraught and Louise shaken not just by her action but by some traumatic memory which the incident has stirred. Louise calls her boyfriend Jimmy to ask him to wire her life savings in order to fund her escape to Mexico; Thelma also calls home, to allay the anxieties of the (not too anxious) Darryl. Driving to Oklahoma City to pick up the cash, the women meet a young hitchhiker, J. D., to whom Thelma takes a fancy. The initially reluctant Louise agrees to give him a lift into Oklahoma City, where she is surprised to find not just her money but Jimmy, who has flown in with an engagement ring.

In their respective hotel rooms, the women negotiate their relationships with their old and new partners, Thelma finding sexual awakening with J. D., who seduces her with the exotic life story of a small-time robber. But in the morning she also finds that he has run off with their money. Newly confident, she reassures the devastated Louise and proceeds to follow J. D.'s own routine, robbing a convenience store along the way. By now the police are in hot pursuit, though detective Hal Slocombe is not unsympathetic to their plight, seemingly aware of the motive behind Louise's fatal shooting and her adamant refusal to drive through Texas (where evidently she herself was once raped).

Breaking the speed limit en route to Mexico, the women are pulled over by a state trooper, but they turn the tables on him and make off with his gun. They take revenge on a lascivious truck driver who has bothered them intermittently on their journey by blowing up his cargo of oil. Finally tracked down by the police in the Grand Canyon, the women resolve to carry on rather than surrender, and steer straight for a precipice …

This film might be subtitled “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun with Guns”. From its very first scene, Thelma & Louise is constructed as an anthology of phallic symbolism, with cigarettes and pistols counterpointed against a ceaseless visual refrain of genito-urinary references: driving rain, crop dusting, spewing oil derricks, sundry episodes of Ridley Scott-trademark steam and, as a ubiquitous leitmotif, background figures with gushing hoses. From a screenplay by female scriptwriter Callie Khouri, Scott has fashioned a remarkably conventional morality tale about sex and drink, rock and roads.

The tone is set in the opening scenes, which serve to caricature the dull routines and unfulfilling relationships from which the women seek escape on a weekend break. Susan Sarandon, waitressing once again as in White Palace, admonishes a customer for smoking—“Ruins your sex drive”—before lighting up herself behind the scenes. Thelma guiltily tucks into a chocolate bar after a spat with her carpet-salesman husband (whose scarlet Corvette bears the registration “The 1”, in case the preceding exchange hasn't sufficiently underlined his egotism). During preparations for departure, the women's domestic interiors are lovingly examined: dark and cluttered, or at least enclosed, they offer contrast to the forthcoming ‘wide open spaces’.

But—no doubt the legacy of Scott's background in advertising—these homes come across more directly as set dressers' dreams. The sorting of clothing becomes a commercials-style scrutiny of material: possessions as metaphors for personality. At first glance, this road movie-cum-chase thriller seems to applaud Thelma and Louise for their audacity, in breaking loose from their stifling life styles and then, as assaults and incidents pile up, in staying the course and keeping one step ahead of the law. But, not far beneath the shiny surface, lies a much more ambivalent, indeed covertly repressive attitude towards women who take their lives into their own hands.

The supposed freedom of the open road—hitherto an essentially masculine domain—is shown to be perilously compromised for women. In repaying male sexual abuse with a show of ‘unexpected’ female aggression, the heroines find themselves initially distraught, then—once they have each taken possession of a gun—empowered and exultantly defiant. But they are eventually outstrengthed by the sheer amount of weaponry which men can muster. The obligatory display of hardware—menacing helicopters, a battery of flashing blue lights, close-ups of fingers releasing safety catches—precedes a moment of tearful female bonding before the girls decide to “keep on goin'”. In a scene that reprises the closing moments of Blade Runner, they dive over a precipice into a freeze frame (the road movie that never ends …), leaving plenty of issues suspended in mid-air.

Given the high-grade cardboard from which their characters are made, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon get good mileage out of their roles. But, larded with product placement, the film's visual style is not as far removed from Scott's previous work as the outdoor settings might suggest. The one moment of cinematic bravura comes during the women's drive through the Painted Desert. Resisting the temptation to provide yet another package-tour panorama, Scott shoots the scene by night. With the rockfaces glowing in the background, and the heroines speeding behind an incandescent windshield, it is a brief poetic reminder that cinema exploits similar principles to tourism: son et lumière.

Elissa Marder (essay date September 1991)

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SOURCE: Marder, Elissa. “Blade Runner's Moving Still.” Camera Obscura, no. 27 (September 1991): 89-107.

[In the following essay, Marder discusses the interplay between artificial and organic beings in Blade Runner and examines questions of filmic representation regarding the relationship between human spectators and visual technology.]

In the decade that has elapsed since Blade Runner's first commercial release, Ridley Scott's 1982 science-fiction film has been retroactively hailed as one of the most powerful and influential examples of cinematic postmodernism.1 Despite the fact that Blade Runner has achieved almost canonical status in the annals of film theory,2 the discomfort displayed by its earliest critics serves as a telling index of the film's subversive depiction of a posthuman condition. Released in the shadow of the cozy humanism of E.T., which treated the alterity of the extraterrestrial with the familiarity of a domesticated pet, Blade Runner alienated its original audiences. Most of the reviews were not overly empathetic. Critics were more or less in agreement with Pauline Kael who wrote:

Blade Runner has nothing to give the audience. … It hasn't been thought out in human terms. …3

Time reviewer Richard Corliss's rendition of Kael's lament describes the film in truly monstrous terms:

Blade Runner, like its setting, is a beautiful, deadly organism that devours life.4

Rolling Stone's Michael Scragow adds to the chorus with the remark that

Scott both overdoses on atmosphere and deliberately underdevelops the emotional tension. … His method alienates rather than entrances, completely undercutting his drama. When signs of humanity are so fleeting in both humans and replicants, the audience has no stake in their life or death.5

The persistent echo from all three reviewers revolves around one common complaint—Blade Runner simply isn't “human” enough. Somehow more or less “human” than a human film, Blade Runner flunks the cultural empathy test. In Blade Runner's terminology, this film is a “replicant.”

And yet, these critical judgments rely on the assumptions and distinctions that the film so radically puts into question. The film posits a world in which humans are indistinguishable from androids to the naked “human” eye, in which the terms life and death are irrevocably confounded, and where a visual technological apparatus, called the “empathy test,” is used to determine who can be called “human.” By searching for traces of humanity in this film, the critics must blind themselves to the way in which they are implicated in the film's reflection on the difference between humans and androids. Blade Runner explicitly interrogates what we mean when we speak of a “human film.” What, after all, about film is “human?” Can we unproblematically wish to identify those celluloid figures that are mechanically animated in and by film as “humans?” The critics' desire to witness “humanity” perfectly doubled through filmic representation is a symptomatic misrecognition—and one which Blade Runner explicitly exposes. The filmic metaphor of the “empathy test” frames the question of the relationship between “human” subjects and the moving pictures that purport to reproduce and represent them so faithfully.

It is therefore utterly appropriate that the “empathy test” in Blade Runner is, in fact, an elaborate eye examination. Because the “humans” in the film cannot identify androids as androids with the naked human eye, the bounty hunter, or blade runner, must use the empathy test as a prosthesis. The blade runner looks into a video screen that projects an image of the suspected replicant's eye. The alleged replicant is given a series of questions to answer which are designed to produce an emotional response. But the blade runner does not heed the verbal response—the true test occurs in the dilation of the replicant's pupil. The replicant's eye is thereby stripped of its power to look and the eye becomes a magnified object of the blade runner's mechanically amplified gaze. In the logic of this film, the emotional nerve is directly linked to the optic nerve and emotional response can only be read by calibrating quantitative movements in the optic nerve.

Although, in the empathy test, the emotional nerve is linked to the optic nerve, the relationship between verbal and visual registers is not purely mimetic. According to the implicit logic of the film, a replicant might presumably be able to pass the verbal component of the test by providing correct answers to the narrative questions while failing the quantitative component on the basis of insufficient dilation of the pupil. Correct verbal responses do not necessarily translate into the minute involuntary reflexes of the eye that become the fragile arbiter of human emotional response. The structure of the empathy test, which stages a relationship between narrative and visual constructions of meaning, underscores the fact that these two registers of meaning cannot be collapsed. The visual components of a film cannot simply be reduced to the perfectly analogous visual expression of the film's thematics. The difference between the rhetorical and visual levels of the empathy test compels us to think how verbal and visual representation are articulated in relation to each other in film. To efface or elide this difference is to refuse to read films as films.

The questions asked by the blade runner are a set of hypothetical moral dilemmas to which the replicant must supply the correct “human” answer. Most of the questions that presume to determine humanity are framed by references to an endangered, if not extinct, animal world. The inherent irony of the empathy test is clear—humans can only determine their difference from the species that they have created (androids) by invoking their nostalgic empathy for the species that they have presumably already destroyed (animals). In the first scenario, Deckard says, “It's your birthday, some one gives you a calf-skin wallet. …” Rachel interrupts him by quickly responding “I wouldn't accept it. Also, I'd report the person who gave it to me to the police.” But where this first question seems to establish that humanity is confirmed by concern for animal welfare, the cultural, legal and political parameters through which such concern should properly be demonstrated is left disturbingly ambiguous. For example, the final scenario that Deckard invokes, “You're watching a stage play. A banquet is in progress. The guests are enjoying appetizers of raw oysters. The entree consists of boiled dog” is left unanswered and leaves the film's spectator at a loss to know what, precisely, the desired response ought to have been. The example of a “stage play” places Rachel in the position of spectator and stages an overdetermined relationship between what is figured as tasteless and barbaric consumption (eating boiled dog) and the representation of such an act.

Because the film's spectator is ultimately unable to determine, with precision, the difference between a “correct” and “incorrect” answer, the scenarios presented by the empathy test displace the film's spectator more than they situate for us who is human and who is not. Morality becomes reduced to mores and customs that are culturally determined become, in this context, culturally indeterminable. Rather than interrogating the morality of the replicant, these rhetorical questions interrogate the status of morality as such. They undermine the spectator's ability to establish a discrete identification with the “human” figures in the film, while simultaneously obliging the spectator to question the assumed essential nature of his or her moral categories. The film's spectator, who is unable to distinguish humans from androids either visually or rhetorically, must repeat and mime the confusion about these categories that the film explores. In the act of watching the mise-en-scène of the empathy test scenario, the film's spectator is compelled to see himself or herself as the static, silent, passive agent of a gaze that is manipulated and controlled by a prosthetic mechanical eye—the eye of the camera. Unable simply to identify with either androids or humans in the film while being compelled to remember that he or she has relinquished a nonmediated “human” gaze, the spectator is placed in a precarious position. The questions asked through the metaphor of the empathy test (who is human? What does it mean to be human? And how do we know?) are addressed to the film's spectator as well. As a metaphor for the film, the model of the empathy test is a medium through which Blade Runner links the problem of androids and humans to questions of filmic representation.


Blade Runner begins with a series of nonnarrative shots that depict the city: aircars, gigantic pyramids and grotesque images of eyes in flames. The camera floats through this cityscape until it enters a room in a gigantic building that we later discover to be the Tyrell corporation—the corporation that fabricates and markets “replicants” to be exported to “Off-World” colonies. Two men sit in a room, separated by a machine that appears to be a medical device. One of the men asks the other man to respond to a series of questions. At this early juncture in the film, the first time we see the “empathy test,” we don't understand what it is, or even what is going on. But as film spectators, as soon as we see “human” figures, we assume that the narrative of the film has begun. But this initial sequence does not mark the beginning of the film's narrative. Instead, it operates like a traumatic “primal scene” that the film replays and repeats in significant ways.6

Because the Freudian term “primal scene” refers to a traumatic psychic event (either real or imagined) that can neither be remembered nor represented, the reality and meaning of that event must be reconstructed retroactively (nachträglich) through the traces of its effects. In his case study of the Wolf Man, Freud contends that his patient witnessed a scene of coitus between his parents when he was one and a half-years-old. Freud insists, however, that if this primal event can never be “remembered,” it is not because it was “forgotten,” but rather because it occurred before the child had developed the subjective apparatus required for either comprehension or memory. One might imagine that the one and a half-year-old infant occupies a position approximately analogous to that of a video recording machine capable of recording images but bereft of the psychic technology (the unconscious) required to play them. These recorded images, while meaningless in themselves, were presumably instrumental in developing the psychic machinery that would allow them to emerge two and a half years later in the distorted form of a dream about wolves. The dream at the age of four is not so much a representation of the primal scene, but rather a reconstruction of it. For Freud, the wolf dream proves that the child has witnessed, assimilated and understood both the fact of sexual difference as well as its consequences—the threat of castration. It is important to this analysis, however, to note that the child's fantasmatic representation of his assimilation of sexual difference can only be represented by the substitution of nonhuman figures for human ones. Or, to put it another way, the Wolf Man's dream about wolves marks the moment where he acquires, psychoanalytically speaking, the status of a “human” subject.

This first sequence of Blade Runner operates like a primal scene because it does not assume meaning or significance until it is repeated. Furthermore, through the repetition of this sequence and the meaning it retroactively claims, we are exposed to the terms through which human subjectivity is ostensibly defined throughout the film. The scene unfolds as follows: the man we later learn to be the blade runner (Holden) performs what we later learn to be an empathy test on the suspected replicant (Leon). Holden sits across from Leon, asking him preparatory questions, then the test begins. After one or two questions, Holden demands: “Tell me about your mother, only the good things you remember.” In response to this question, Leon pulls out a gun and shoots Holden. The blast from Leon's gun propels Holden, not only through the wall of the room, but also out of the film's frame. Because he is unable to produce a narrative of memory traces about a mother he never had, Leon's violent response retroactively identifies him as a replicant. Blade Runner's narrative begins after this moment, as if the film itself is engendered by Leon's inability to respond to the question “Tell me about your mother.” After Holden is blown away, the camera floats once again through the cityscape until it descends into the street where it closes in on a man reading a newspaper in front of a television store. The film supplies us with the images and sound cues that mark the beginning of the film's narrative: an image of and voice-over by the protagonist, Deckard (Harrison Ford), who claims to have quit his job as a “blade runner.” Deckard's voice-over announces the real beginning of the film which proceeds, at least initially, in more or less classical narrative form, until this “primal sequence” is repeated.

The first repetition of the “primal sequence” occurs when Deckard goes back to the police headquarters, run by Bryant, where he used to work as a blade runner. Bryant wants Deckard to take over Holden's job—to identify and eliminate five replicants that are loose in the streets of Los Angeles.7 The film's spectator watches Bryant and Deckard sitting in a dark room, in front of a “movie” screen, watching the scene between Leon and Holden that we took for the first narrative moment of the film. At this point, however, we remember that first scene with a difference. Because we watch Deckard and Bryant watching a “movie” of the scene we just witnessed moments before, the spectator is forced to remember that primal sequence as part of a film rather than as an event that we actually “witnessed.” Where film narratives often rely upon creating the illusion that the spectator has direct and unmediated access to action as it unfolds, (indeed, one thinks of the desire named by the generic category of “action film”), this sequence reminds us that what we saw “happening,” did not actually “happen” in our presence, but rather that it was reconstructed for our viewing pleasure. This moment provokes the spectator to remember, however fleetingly, that we are not present to the action that appears to unfold before our eyes. In the shock of the moment that reminds us of our position as spectators, we arrest the fictional continuity of the film's narrative. In short, the “filmic” situation of the second scene disrupts the illusion of narrative purity (presence) that we may have wanted to accord the first scene. The first repetition of the “primal scene” makes us aware that the first scene was also necessarily the second one—already a replication, reproduction, replicant repetition. The dismemberment of the film into a unit that is consistently broken down and repeated disturbs the illusion of narrative continuity on which fiction films generally depend.

After the first traumatic repetition of the primal sequence (which initially disrupts the continuity of the narrative), subsequent repetitions of this scene function as a kind of filmic punctuation mark that establishes and underscores the difference between androids and humans. The primal sequence now serves as a narrative cutting device or, more precisely, as splicing device. All of the initial “human” sequences are prefaced and framed by quotations of the primal sequence whereas android sequences unfold with no contextualizing markers. For example, before Deckard and Gaff visit the hotel room that Leon had given as his address, we see Deckard flying in his aircar listening to the soundtrack of Leon's first responses to Holden from the primal sequence. After the human scene between Deckard and Gaff, the android narrative begins with Roy's and Leon's visit to Chew's eye factory. But while Deckard's actions appear to respond to elements in the primal sequence (that is, Leon's voice giving his address to Holden directs Deckard to Leon's hotel), the first android sequence is introduced by a disturbing close-up of Roy Batty's clenched fist. After the android sequence at the eye factory, Deckard's reappearance is glossed by a playback of Leon's parting words to Holden: “Let me tell you about my mother.” Deckard then returns to his apartment where he finds Rachel, a suspected replicant, waiting in his elevator to tell him about her mother. Although the narrative has begun to put the difference between humans and androids into question, the filmic structures at this point in the film work in the opposite way—they establish and maintain this difference through the alternating sequences on either side of the “repeated” preface.

This structure changes at a crucial moment in Blade Runner, at which point another kind of primal, traumatic image is substituted for the filmic preface—a photograph. It is around this photograph, a snapshot of the replicant Rachel with her mother, that the oppositional economy that this film has established between humans and replicants trembles and falters. This photograph is central to the film's treatment of the difference between humans and replicants and, in some sense, articulates the film's ambiguous response to the question that explodes the primal sequence: “Tell me about your mother. …” To read the central importance that this image has for the film, we are going to take a detour through a brief analysis of the relationship between photographs and films. By using photographs—“still images”—both thematically and structurally, Blade Runner analyzes the medium of film through a systematic dismemberment of its constitutive elements.


Although both photographs and films are mechanically reproduced images, they are often perceived as having entirely different functions. We consider photographs to be agents of memory while we tend to view fiction films as pretexts for oblivion. Roland Barthes's work on the distinction between photography and film enables us to begin to address the ways in which this distinction is both engaged and questioned by Blade Runner. In “The Rhetoric of the Image,” Barthes argues that “the distinction between film and photograph is not a simple difference of degree but a radical opposition.”8 If photographs are “radically opposed” to films, it is because they do not occupy the same grammatical tense. While photographs always speak the undeniable reality of the “past perfect” (they bear witness to what Barthes calls the “having-been-there” of the referent), film destroys the photograph's link to the referent (hence the past) by binding images to other images in the construction of a fictional present tense (what he calls a “being-there”) of the thing. It is important to note, however, that the temporal disjunction that separates film from photography relies entirely upon the question of movement. In order for photography to bear witness to the pastness of the past, the referent must be preserved and embalmed through the stasis of the photographic image. In Camera Lucida, Barthes contends that the frozen image actually bears a material memory trace of the body of the referent. Because the referent “adheres” to the photographic image, Barthes insists that photography is fundamentally different from all other forms of representation. He writes:

I had to conceive … how Photography's referent is not the same as the referent of other systems of representation. I call “photographic referent” not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph. Painting can feign reality without having seen it. Discourse combines signs which have referents, of course, but these referents can be and are most often “chimeras.” Contrary to these imitations, in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past.


Following Barthes, we can say that photographs serve as absolute testimonies both to the pastness of an event and to its reality. They purport to frame a moment of time and a subject in a past forever frozen. We think of them as receptacles for time. We accord them the status of hyperreality; these mechanically reproduced images are perceived to be perfect “replicas” of what must have been there, if the photographic trace exists to “prove” it.

Because they prove the reality of the past, we use photographs as agents of memory. These flat, material traces serve as evidence of a “having-been-there” that can only be subjectively presumed. By remembering for us, the photograph remembers us: it remembers what we cannot, or might not, down to all of the insignificant details which, because forgotten, are further testimony to the reality of the scene exposed. An artificial eye enables us to see ourselves—and our loved ones—as real. By positioning ourselves in relation to these photographic images, we posit ourselves in space and time. We regard these photographic images as the proof or arbiter of our existence across the passage of time. As prosthetic memories, photographs transform the reality of time and existence into tangible objects. In Blade Runner, these flat objects become the dead proof that their bearer is still living. They are the replicants or doubles through whose lifelessness we constitute our own sense of identity, place and time. But—and this is the question that the film Blade Runner poses so radically—do we confer our humanity onto them or are they somehow the necessary supplements through which ours is constituted? In the film's terms, why do androids or humans need photographs?

For, in a sense, the photograph is the true “subject” of Blade Runner. This “it” that is the photograph is the site of humanity and the locus of the film's quest for origins. Blade Runner poses the question “where do we come from?” in every possible way. From the film's origin about origins—the primal sequence—through the detoured literalizations of this question in the father/son scene between Roy Batty (the replicant leader) and Tyrell, this question is formulated and reformulated. The question of origins is coupled with the other fundamental question posed by Blade Runner: “why do humans or androids need photographs?” These two questions become the same question when asked by or about the film itself. For the film, as a film, is in some sense in search of its origin through the exposure of and insistence on the photographic image. The photograph appears to be the smallest essential unit through which a film's materiality is constructed—its DNA, to paraphrase the dialogue between Roy Batty and Tyrell. But what is the relationship between this film and its photos? For a film, as material trace, is a collection of still photographs arranged in sequence. When they are put into a projector these dead stills appear to assume life—they move and speak. From replicas they become replicants thereby echoing from the Latin the present active particle ans. However, it is the very “reality” we accord these past dead images that allows us to invest in the fictionality of the fiction film. Once these images are put into time we attempt to constitute a “present” through them. In order to follow the narrative parade of images that make up the fiction film, we must forget any other past or present in a desperate attempt to race after the “presentness” that appears to be unfolding before our eyes.

In order for this structure to constitute us unproblematically, these images must be empty receptacles—forms into which we bury and perfectly fit images of ourselves. It is this structure that Blade Runner puts so radically into question. Its reflection of and on the photograph necessarily alters the way in which we look both at the film and at ourselves. Blade Runner likens androids to photographs because they function as nonhuman receptacles for human image and memory. They are designed to reflect the human figure perfectly—to cast back an image of humanity in order to confirm our own. We look at them, as our doubles, and see our humanity refracted through our difference from them. Like photographs, replicants are mechanically reproduced and, like photographs, their likeness to us is the measure and proof of a humanity that once was, and is no longer. This humanity is no longer in the sense that androids are more physically perfect than any of their human counterparts. Doubles of life which, in their doubling and their difference from it, carve out an image of “humanity” through which humans attempt to see themselves as human. Like photographs, replicants both testify to the real existence of the past category “human” and confirm a self-image that is no longer “present” but presumed.


As I stated earlier, the primal scene or preface which splices the narrative in the first half of the film, gives way to another pivotal moment in Blade Runner. In a way, this moment is a literal response to the sequence that culminated in the question “tell me about your mother.” At this point, however, instead of providing us with a narrative which would tell about the mother, the film responds to this question through a single image—the image of a mother and daughter. Rachel, who has begun to suspect that she might be a replicant, goes to Deckard's apartment to prove to him that she is human by showing him a photograph of her with her mother. To understand the weight of this image, however, we must return to the earlier moment when Deckard first goes to the Tyrell corporation. Tyrell asks Deckard to test the empathy test device on his assistant Rachel. Rachel is subjected to the test and then asked to leave the room while Deckard and Tyrell discuss the results. The test reveals that Rachel, who thinks that she is human, is, in fact, a replicant. When Deckard discovers that Rachel is not human, he asks: “how can it not know what it is?” By referring to Rachel as “it” (rather than “she”) Deckard neuters Rachel in an attempt to establish a greater difference between them than that of sexual difference. But Deckard's question about an “it” itself interrogates the status of the human subject: one cannot ask “how can it not know what it is?” without implicitly asking “how can I know that I am I?” As the film progresses, it becomes more and more clear that Deckard's question (which he believes to be addressed to an other) is very much self-addressed. When Deckard asks “how can it not know what it is” in reference to Rachel, he does not see that he is asking the question of his own autobiography. The problem of whether any subject—any purported “I” is or can be a personal, individual or locatable entity is what is at stake in this scene.

Although Deckard attempts to establish a radical difference between himself (as “I”) and Rachel (as “it”), the very fact that Rachel can misrecognize herself as human forces Deckard to examine the fragility of his own subjective position. When Rachel appears at Deckard's apartment with her photograph, Deckard is confronted with the impossibility of sustaining a difference between himself and “it.” Deckard lets Rachel into the apartment. She holds a snapshot in her hands and says, “You think I'm a replicant, don't you?” He refuses to look at her photo. Instead, he launches into an interrogation of Rachel that closely parallels the structure of the empathy test. He asks her a series of questions designed to test her memory, presumably to prove to her that her memory is not her own. But the ambiguity surrounding both the questions and the responses raises questions about whose memories are being invoked and questioned in this scene.

Deckard begins the interrogation by conjuring up a childhood scene of sexual exploration. He says, “Remember when you were six, you and your brother snuck into an open window of an empty basement. You wanted to play doctor. He showed you his, but when it came to your turn, you chickened and ran. Do you remember that? Ever tell anyone that?” Deckard's invocation of this singularly private moment is designed to probe the limits of Rachel's memory implants. He believes that Rachel could never be able to remember this moment (or one like it) because it never would have been told. This is why he repeatedly asks, “Do you remember that? Ever tell anyone that?” Because this memory would not have been narrated it could not have been appropriated by the collective memory banks out of which Rachel's “implants” were taken. But if Deckard's exemplary “private” memory does not belong to the collective memory banks, then where does it come from? One can only assume that Deckard's “example” comes from his own, personal memory banks and that when he says “you” he means “I.” Deckard has sacrificed the specificity of his “private” memory by recasting his autobiography into the rhetorical structure of the empathy test. The very gesture that is designed to establish his difference from her results in a linguistic confusion between “I” and “you,” between his memories and hers. Furthermore, it is significant that Deckard's example of a “primal human memory” (a memory too private to be told) involves a demonstration of sexual difference through the showing of private parts. Deckard insists upon invoking the childhood scene through which children show sexual difference to one another as a means to construct a difference between himself (as human) and Rachel (as android).

Deckard then begins a second narrative about a mother spider who sits with her bag of eggs in a corner of the room. This is the first mention (aside from the moment in which Rachel presents the photo) of the word “mother” since the traumatic question which inaugurates the film. Deckard's recollection of a “mother” recalls Holden's inaugural imperative “tell me about your mother.” Instead of telling about his mother, Deckard recounts a nostalgic memory about watching a mother spider brooding over her eggs. Rachel interrupts Deckard's narration and perfectly completes “his” memory, adding the end: “And then the eggs hatched and hundreds of little spiders came out, and they ate her.” If this memory once “belonged” to Deckard, once Rachel tells it, Deckard's private memory no longer belongs to him. It is no longer “his” in the sense that this memory no longer uniquely remembers him—his memories no longer unite discrete bits of a private, personal past into a unified entity, an “I” named Deckard. As Rachel remembers this past for him—she dismembers him and dispossess him of his “I.” In addition, within this shared memory is told the tale of the death of a mother. This mother spider is consumed by her children, a horde of replicant spiders, who bury her by ingesting her, incorporating her, making her part of themselves. This figure of an inhuman mother who engenders a multitude of murderous offspring foreshadows the figure of the photograph of Rachel's mother that emerges at the end of this sequence.

Deckard stops the verbal empathy test and says, “they're not your memories, they're somebody else's. Tyrell's niece's. Implants.” Then he goes into the kitchen to prepare drinks. Rachel drops the photo and leaves. The photograph lies between them. Deckard returns to the place she has left and picks up the photograph. The camera does not move at this point, but rather remains still, motionless, miming the stillness of the photo. It is Deckard's hand, holding the photo, that moves the “still” closer to the camera so that the filmic frame perfectly encases the frame of the photographic image. And then, for a split second, as the film lens is framed around the photo, the “still” itself appears to move. Both mother and daughter appear to move from within the frame. This “moving still”—the split second during which the mark between photo and film is blurred disrupts all of the film's oppositions, and puts into motion an entirely different sort of economy. Furthermore, this particular image is particularly disturbing because it is no longer particular, no longer a unique image of one person's mother. Ostensibly, this is Rachel's mechanically reproduced proof that she was naturally born of a mother. But Rachel can only attempt to establish her humanity, beyond the shadow of a doubt, by offering up the image of a mother whom one must suppose to be dead or at least irretrievably absent. Rachel attempts to prove her humanity with a photo that would claim to successfully encase, frame and contain her mother in the square space of a snapshot. But this mother is not easily buried. She, or “it,” refuses to lie motionless in the frame that has been constructed to contain her. The mother, in Blade Runner is no more Rachel's mother than she is anyone else's. Yet this image, this “it,” disrupts and violates the boundaries of the photographic frame. It is this mother that marks the irrevocable distance between ourselves and “it” that motivates the remainder of the film. This photograph, which Rachel offers as evidence of her “human” origin, is a moving form which cannot be contained by a word, a proper name or a picture frame.9


The image of the “moving still” motivates the remaining segments of the film. After Rachel leaves Deckard with the photo of the mother, we see him sitting at his piano, which is littered with an enormous collection of photographs. We must assume that Deckard has retrieved his “personal” collection of family photographs. Whatever Deckard saw when he looked at the image of “Rachel's mother” provokes him to look for “his” photographic memories. But from the fragmented unrelated images that lie on the piano in front of him, we understand that Deckard's family photographs no more belong to him than Rachel's photo belonged to her. Many of the photos that Deckard retrieves appear to date from the nineteenth century—a time that he could never remember personally—a time that was never his—photos of people he never knew. These photos are memory implants for him as well.

This sequence begins as the film camera moves first to the photographs on the piano, and then to Deckard's face. The “shot-counter-shot” structure posits Deckard posterior to and in function of, the images of the photographs. In this way, the camera “defines” Deckard as dependent on the photographic images, and not vice-versa. This structure, which is established after the sequence of the “moving still” acquires even greater force and strangeness in the subsequent shots of this sequence. From amid the collection of photos on the piano which are supposedly “his,” Deckard picks one which is explicitly not “his” and which has already been shown in the film. It is the photograph that Deckard had found in his visit to Leon's apartment. This photograph initially appeared to be entirely meaningless. The snapshot shows a curved elbow on one side of the frame in an otherwise empty room. Upon finding the photograph Deckard had fleetingly mused, “family photos? Replicants don't have families. Why would replicants need photographs?” At that earlier moment of the film, this bizarre photograph seemed to function as yet another mark of the difference between replicants and humans. To the naked human eye, the image appeared to make no sense: why would anyone want a photograph of an elbow in an empty hotel room? When we first see this photograph, the difference between humans and replicants is seemingly represented by the absence of a recognizable “human” subject. When Deckard returns to this photograph, in the sequence that follows that of the “moving still,” he now assumes that the photo might have a meaning. He examines the snapshot in order to find what he now believes must be there to be seen: a “human” subject. Deckard eventually discovers the figure of a human subject buried in the photo—but the way that he “finds” “it” renders both him and “it” suspect.

Deckard inserts this seemingly meaningless image into another prosthetic visual aid device; an incredible machine which is able to dismember the photographic image from all angles and blow up, in focus, any part of the dissected image. This machine apparently has the capacity to reenter the photographic frame, fragment the image, alter the perspective and then to restore the new “blow up” to full plenitude. In other words, the technological apparatus which allows Deckard to change the perspective of a flat, photographic image and to find a figure hidden in a corner of the frame is literally unthinkable, even in a technological paradise. For a flat “dead” photograph—a trace of and testament to a past event—cannot shift perspectives after the fact, and remain what we call a photograph. The machine disrupts the temporal and spatial boundaries of the photographic object. With the aid of this apparatus, the photograph ceases to be a photograph—the past image is supplemented by a present images enhanced by movement and refined perspective. Using this machine, Deckard finally “finds” an image of a woman's face, framed in an oval mirror like a portrait locket. He takes a new photo of the face and prints a copy of the photo in the photo.

But the hard copy of the image that Deckard finds imbedded in the original photograph could never have emerged from it. The copy could not possibly be a copy of the original. Deckard was desperately looking for a “human” face, and he has made one—projected one—onto a space where it seems no “replicant” was figured. However, in so doing, the photo becomes another sort of “moving still,” an impossible, artificial “mother” which engenders a new and disturbing image of a “subject.” Deckard is able to find the image of the subject in the photo because he has, in a literal sense, put it there. Deckard has conferred or projected his image of subjectivity onto the replicants. He is both obliged and able to do this only to the degree to which his own “self-image” has been disrupted by his encounter with Rachel around the image of the mother. The image of the woman's face that Deckard finds is no longer a trace from the past—but an impossible animation that bears witness to the present—his present as well as “its” present. At the moment in which Deckard personally reconstructs or “remembers” the image of a face he has never seen, this woman's face, framed in the mirror, also becomes a mirror for him.

The image of the woman's face in the mirror is doubly impossible. For even if this image could have been reconstructed from Leon's photograph, the face reflected in the mirror raises another set of problems. The photographic image depicts only the reflection of the face, without the back of the head that should have cast this reflection. In other words, like the doubled photograph itself, this image is yet another copy bereft of its original. In some sense, in the face that gazes back at him from the photograph, Deckard sees his own reflection. Cast across the chasm of the mechanical apparatus that separates these two faces, that separates humans and replicants, that separates “him” from “it,” past from present, his gaze meets hers, framed by a mirror. In the space that is constructed between Deckard's gaze and the face in this doubled photograph—he is impossibly doubled. The difference between “him” and “it” on which Deckard's self-image had been predicated has been radically effaced. This space marks Blade Runner's remodeled version of subjectivity—one that is no longer essentially “human,” no longer viewed as the property of one particular “subject” but simultaneously his, her's and “its.”

On one level, the sequence in which Deckard “blows up” Leon's photograph and uncovers the image of the woman's face is an obvious quotation of Antonioni's film Blow Up. However, the ways in which Blade Runner's “blow up” sequence diverges from the analogous moment in Antonioni's film emphasize both the “impossibility” and implicit violence of this scene in Blade Runner. In Blow Up, the photographer discovers that he had been the unwitting witness to a murder when he enlarges a photo he had taken in the park. By examining the grainy “blow up” of his photograph, which serves as proof that the crime actually “happened,” the photographer isolates an image of the murder weapon. The enlarged photograph incites the photographer to return to the scene of the crime and touch the body of the corpse. The power of this sequence in Blow Up depends entirely on the conventional definition of the photograph—that it is a reliable and inherently accurate witness to a past event. Thus, while Blow Up explores the relation between photographs and responsibility, it in no way puts the notion of what a photograph is, and how it functions, into question. In Blade Runner, however, the unthinkable apparatus that alters the photograph's initial perspective provokes us to alter our understanding of what a photograph is. Whereas in Blow Up the original photograph is merely enlarged, in Blade Runner the original photograph is more literally “blown up”—exploded. Furthermore, in Blow Up, the photograph functions as a “memory” trace of a murder that has already taken place, whereas, in Blade Runner, the photograph functions as the “memory” of a murder that has yet to occur.

Deckard undergoes the “blow up” sequence—in which he both projects and constructs the image of the woman's face—in order to be able to kill her. On the basis of the photograph that Deckard reconstructs, he identifies the woman as Zhora, one of the replicants he is instructed to eliminate. He uses this photograph to track her down and, when he does, he kills her. Zhora's murder, which is inextricably bound up with the problem of the doubled photograph, is the first “murder” depicted in the film. This graphic act of violence initiates the cycle of violence which doesn't end until all of the replicants are “dead” and the film ends. However, this explicit representation of the annihilation of “subjects” is predicated upon the implicit violence to the very notion of the “subject” that emerges through an analysis of the doubled photograph and was introduced by the primal image of the “moving still.”

Indeed, the doubled photograph is the film's visual response to the questions, “how can it not know what it is?” and “How can I know that I am I?” When Deckard “reconstructs” and “remembers” Zhora's face from a photograph of an empty room, he can no longer distance himself from the image he creates or from the “it” that is the missing referent for the photograph. The photograph is no longer a sealed receptacle of a past event that assures its bearer that he is still living. All of the differentiating marks that would draw a clear line between subject and “thing,” human and replicant, photograph and film, have been effaced. And yet, it is as if the absence of such differentiating marks is precisely what propels Deckard (as the “human” representative) to annihilate his replicant doubles. Because he can no longer establish what the difference is or where it lies, he must effectively remove all material trace of the “double” that puts his identity into question. This is what is at stake in the murder of Zhora. Rachel, the replicant-that-doesn't-know-what-it-is, symbolically acquires “human” status, not through the photograph of the mother, but rather by the fact that she kills another android—Leon. After Deckard kills Zhora, Leon, whom we assume had been her lover, attacks Deckard. Rachel, who witnesses the scene, expresses her love for Deckard and consummates her “humanity” by killing Leon. Thus Deckard and Rachel are joined as a couple only after they have annihilated their unbearable replicant counterparts—Leon and Zhora. Blade Runner's moving still exposes as fiction the notion that “humanity” and “identity” can be possessed in the form of personal property. The violence that finally explodes between so-called subjects merely acts out the violence of and to the “subject” that this film exposes. The visual representation of this violence, which begins in the “moving still” sequence and is developed in the doubled photograph sequence, is this film's response to the shattering utterance which inaugurates Blade Runner: “Tell me about your mother.” Perhaps this question is itself unutterably violent. In Blade Runner, the figure of the mother refuses to guarantee that one is born, and not made, human. And what more calls the human subject into question than the responsibility of understanding that humanity cannot be conferred by a petrified image in a picture frame? For the mother, the irretrievable site from whom we have all presumably sprung, can best be figured as a “moving still,” a mobile empty vessel, a thing that no word or picture could ever adequately fill.


  1. See Guiliana Bruno, “Ramble City: Postmodernism, and Blade Runner” (October 41, summer 1987): 61-74, and David Harvey, “Time and Space in the Postmodern Cinema” in The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989) 308-323 for their discussions of Blade Runner as an example of cinematic postmodernism. While I treat much of the same textual material as Bruno and Harvey, my reading emphasizes Blade Runner's cinematic critique of the status of the human subject. Along different lines, see Constance Penley's discussion of Blade Runner as an example of a “critical dystopia” in “Time Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia (On The Terminator and La Jetée)” in The Future of an Illusion: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989) 121-139.

  2. In a recent paper entitled “Film Aesthetics, Film History, and the Idea of a Film Canon,” (delivered to the Columbia Film Seminar on September 26, 1991) Peter Wollen cited Blade Runner as the only current example of a canonical film from the 1980s.

  3. Pauline Kael, “Baby, the Rain Must Fall,” The New Yorker, 12 July 1982: 85.

  4. Richard Corliss, “The Pleasures of Texture,” Time, 12 July 1982: 68.

  5. Michael Scragow, “Blade Runner: Stalking the Alienated Android,” Rolling Stone, no. 375, 5 August 1982.

  6. Strictly speaking, the Freudian term “primal scene” cannot be used to describe any filmic representation because a primal scene is an event that, by definition, can never be represented. But because Freud's account of the Wolf Man's case history provides a model for the human subject that is constituted as a knot of memory, sexual difference and fantasmatic identification with nonhuman figures, the notion of the primal scene enables us to interrogate Blade Runner's treatment of the relationship between primal memories and human subjectivity. For Freud's most complete account of the primal scene, see “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis” in Three Case Histories (New York: Collier Books, 1963) 187-316.

  7. Although I do not want to trivialize the complexity and the specificity of issues that surround the Rodney King verdict and its traumatic aftermath, I would like to point out that Blade Runner asks to be read (at least in part) as an allegory of race relations in the U.S. Set in a future Los Angeles, the film explicitly refers to the blade runner unit as an elite branch of the L.A.P.D. The police chief's use of the term “skin jobs” (a slang term for replicants) is likened to that of the term “niggers.” In the context of this analysis of the “empathy test,” it is chilling to note that the defense lawyers in the King trial established a discourse of “inhumanity” (defense lawyers depicted King rhetorically as an “animal” and as having super-human strength) that relied on temporal manipulations of the video tape (defense lawyers played the tape repeatedly in slow motion to diminish the sense of reality of the photographic image) to prove (simultaneously) that King was “in complete control” and that the tape was not an accurate witness to the event.

  8. “The Rhetoric of the Image” in Image, Music, Text trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Want, 1977) 45. In Camera Lucida Barthes glosses the difference between the photography and film as follows: “… in the cinema, no doubt, there is always a photographic referent, but this referent shifts, it does not make a claim in favor of its reality, it does not protest its former existence; it does not cling to me: it is not a specter,” trans. Richard Howard (New York: Noonday Press, 1981) 89. All further references to Camera Lucida refer to this edition. Page numbers will be indicated in parenthesis following the reference.

  9. As any reader of Camera Lucida knows, Roland Barthes's reflections of the ontology of photography ultimately take the form of an autobiographical elegy to his dead mother. Camera Lucida is not only about the missing photograph of the deceased mother, but also, more radically, about photography as prosthetic mother. The text stages a convergence between photography and the mother by conceiving of photography as a mechanical mother that mimes, distorts and usurps the maternal function. I have explored some of these issues in a paper entitled “The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” which was presented at the Twentieth Century French Studies Conference (University of Pennsylvania, March 12, 1992).

Richard Alleva (review date 13 September 1991)

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SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. “Over the Edge?” Commonweal 118, no. 15 (13 September 1991): 513-15.

[In the following review, Alleva comments that Scott's skillful portrayal of two strong female protagonists elevates Thelma and Louise into “a cultural milestone.”]

Scarfed and sunglassed like Jackie Onassis, the two women drive their Thunderbird convertible through the Southwest toward Mexico. They chug little bottles of Wild Turkey whiskey, bang on wheel and dashboard to the beat of the country and western music that blares from the car radio, and sing along raucously when they're not making spontaneous whoops of joy. A casual observer might take these two for college students cutting a class on Friday for a long weekend at the beach. And, quite plainly, life must be a beach for these women. They're on the loose. Carefree. Frolicsome. Game for anything. Living on the crest of the moment. Happy.

Thus Thelma, who has just committed armed robbery. Thus Louise, who left a man dead in Arkansas.

Psychopaths? Not at all. Hardened criminals? Mere neophytes. Crazed feminists, as some of the critics of Thelma and Louise seem to think? Well, they do blow up a fuel truck because its driver got lewd with them, but when that outraged macho man proclaims them “bitches from hell,” the label just doesn't seem to fit. Hard-core retributionists in the sex wars would have shot up the driver, not the rig.

Thelma and Louise are not avenging furies. They are not hunting down guilty males or consciously redressing the injuries to their sex. They are good-hearted, plucky, even rather conventional women (“Now don't you litter,” Louise admonishes her pal when the latter tosses some garbage on the ground) who set out on a fishing trip and end up getting chased by state troopers and the FBI into the Grand Canyon. At no time do they ever think of themselves as bandit queens or as representatives of anything sociological or political. When half-a-hundred police cars zoom into view just before the final chase, Louise gasps, and it may be the most poignant moment in the movie, “All this for us?” After all, before a rapist attacked Thelma and got blown away by Louise, all the two friends wanted was a fun weekend. All they wanted was to get away from it all. But what “it all” turns out to be, and just how Thelma and Louise get away, do indeed make this movie a feminist film, the most hopeless feminist film ever made. Yet, how exhilarating a hopeless film can be.

“It all” is the world of men, and Thelma and Louise demonstrates that, in a world ruled by and for men, the one route women can take to fulfill and enjoy themselves is the road toward death. The peculiar feat of Thelma and Louise is to make sense of the freedom felt by its heroines apprehensible while never letting the viewer forget the ultimate destination of the derailed vacation. The joy that pervades so much of Thelma and Louise is the joy that comes from knowing that everything is going to end in a smash. In outline, this movie is as doomful as a piece of German Expressionism, but in its realization it is as loose, as rowdy, as violently insouciant as Smokey and the Bandit.

What fuels this movie isn't feminist rage at men but feminist disbelief: disbelief in male honor, male staunchness, male justice. Louise doesn't believe the police will credit the fact that the man she killed was trying to rape Thelma even though the evidence of some form of assault is right on Thelma's battered face. Thelma knows that her husband is in cahoots with the law the moment she hears his voice on the phone. Louise truly loves her boyfriend, Jimmy, but not believing he would be capable of enduring outlawry with her, she doesn't even tell him she's on the run. Neither woman believes that the legal system will treat them fairly, and the one lawman portrayed with sympathy—the Arkansas officer played by Harvey Keitel—is never given a chance by Louise to help her. Even mere competence isn't granted to the male of the species: a state trooper crumples into tears when the women get the drop on him, and the FBI officers idle helplessly in Thelma's house while waiting for her to call home. Even the rather gallant Jimmy probably gives information to the cops when they finally get to him (though this isn't shown). Only at the conclusion, when the law forces combine to trap the women, do men show any competence. That squad car formation is pretty frightening. But this is the competence an elephant displays when it crushes a flea. “All this for us?”

Yet, because only disbelief in men, not rage, powers this film, none of the male characters, except the rapist, is characterized as truly evil, only as doltish (Thelma's husband), well-meaning but ultimately helpless (Jimmy, Keitel's lawman), rigid (the FBI agents), or dishonest but sexually alluring (the con man picked up by Thelma who robs her). Even the foul trucker is portrayed as only a laughable satyr who shows the courage of his abominable convictions when he refuses, at gunpoint, to apologize for his obscenity. Because their characters are drawn by scriptwriter Callie Khouri with some tang and humor, the actors can bring their talents into play rather than merely serve as macho strawmen. Harvey Keitel, finally employing an accent that doesn't defeat him, gives his best performance in years. Brad Pitt makes something amazing of the con artist: always pliant, never rebuffed by any rebuff, always promising to leave but never quite leaving, always seeming to give way but always taking and using, he turns this utterly worthless drifter into the psychological equivalent of a Judo master.

But the heart of the movie is the relationship between the title characters, and it is the portrayal of this relationship that both propounds and confounds the notion that the attachment between Thelma and Louise can serve as a feminist model of female bonding. Certainly the women give each other the sort of sisterly mutual support so extolled nowadays. Louise can plan (an escape route) while dippy Thelma sunbathes by a motel pool. But it is Thelma who can act (rob a store) when the fatalistic Louise falls into despair at the theft of their funds. And the performances of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon beautifully complement each other: the former with her zigzagging vocalism and space-cadet dreaminess, the latter with her emotion-scored face and her formidable command of concentrated anger, despair, compassion, quizzicality.

Yet, as far as her relationship with Louise goes, Thelma might as well be called Thanatos. At the start of their trip, it is Thelma who brings along a revolver she doesn't know how to use but which Louise certainly will. It is Thelma who insists on stopping at the dance joint where they encounter the would-be rapist, and it is her naiveté that makes her ignore Louise's warnings against him. It is Thelma who insists (again against Louise's advice) on picking up the con artist who will steal the money the fugitives need for their escape. That Louise would trust the money with Thelma in the first place is an outrageous plot twist, and that the talented and usually inventive Ms. Khouri would stoop to such a ploy shows how eager she is to demonstrate Thelma's destructive contribution to the friendship. Thelma's amends is her robbery of a store, but this crime makes the police all the more eager and able to capture the pair. When Louise tentatively negotiates with Keitel, it is Thelma who hangs up the phone and asks Louise, “You're not going to give up on me, are you?” That is to say, you're not giving up on our outlaw life? Just before the police close in, Thelma declares that “something's crossed over in me” and that she's never felt so wide-awake. And the final catastrophe is brought on by Thelma's plea, “Let's just keep going,” when there's nowhere to go but into the Grand Canyon. These friends may take turns driving, but, insofar as their adventure is a death-trip, Thelma is at the wheel all the way.

Khouri's juicy script gives director Ridley Scott the opportunity to do his best work since his first feature film, The Duellists. He always knows how to visually and aurally weight each moment in the story. Scott makes the shot that kills the rapist echo on the soundtrack like the roar of doom. When Louise shares a tender parting with her boyfriend in an eatery, Scott places some waitresses in the background of the shot so that their giggling, delighted faces seem perched on the heads of the lovers they are spying on. Not the least of Scott's achievements is to give the landscape through which the women move such an aura of masculinity (oil pumps vertically thrusting, weight lifters working out at filling stations, deserts that seem haunted by the ghost of John Ford) that their very passage through land so phallocentric becomes an act of defiance itself. And this background, a land claimed so emphatically by and for men, helps make the suicidal finale tolerably plausible. At least while you're watching the movie.

Thelma and Louise is a cultural milestone. It is the first feminist film that is also a work of absolute nihilism. Dismayingly, undeniably, it's a lot of fun, too.

David Desser (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Desser, David. “The New Eve: The Influence of Paradise Lost and Frankenstein on Blade Runner.” In Retrofitting “Blade Runner”: Issues in Ridley Scott's “Blade Runner” and Philip K. Dick's “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” edited by Judith B. Kerman, pp. 53-65. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Desser explores how Blade Runner reworks motifs and mythic themes from John Milton's Paradise Lost and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, focusing particularly on the themes of redemption and transcendence.]

A number of critics have claimed that some of the remarkable power of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's stylish film adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, rests on the way it utilizes a fundamental mythic structure apparent in the novel, Frankenstein, and in many of its film adaptations: “the struggle with human facsimiles” (Strick 168). While this is certainly an important element in both Mary Shelley's classic gothic novel and Scott's genre-expanding science fiction film, it hardly exhausts the issue of the indebtedness of Blade Runner to Frankenstein. Shelley's Frankenstein itself borrows heavily from John Milton's monumental epic, Paradise Lost;1 in fact, Frankenstein is a “rewriting” of Paradise Lost.Blade Runner is also clearly influenced directly by Milton's poetic meditation. So to account for the effectiveness of Blade Runner is also to understand how it borrows from Paradise Lost, both directly and as filtered through Frankenstein.

In this essay, I should like to expand upon the ways that Blade Runner is indebted to Frankenstein by also examining its allusions to Paradise Lost. I will assert already at this point, that if we take Paradise Lost and Frankenstein to be serious, philosophical, important works, then we must accord the same respect to Blade Runner. And we must accord significance to Blade Runner for the way the film reworks important motifs and mythic themes underlying the earlier efforts.

Milton's epic tale of the struggle between Good and Evil, of Man's first disobedience and his ultimate (potential) redemption, is also a masterpiece of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Milton has created a self-coherent cosmos subject to its own laws and regulations, and he has situated it in a palpable sense of place. In fact, Milton's most memorable location, far from being the Garden of Eden, is, rather, Hell, a Hell which could as easily be the scripted description of the Los Angeles in which Blade Runner is set:

A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsumed

(I: 61-9)2

The massive smokestacks belching pollution, the heatless, soulless neon lights, the misting acid rain, the eternal nighttime and the teeming masses of humanity with which Ridley Scott has populated this Los Angeles certainly suggest a hell on Earth. But if Milton's Hell offers no hope to the “rebel angels,” Scott's hell-on-Earth at least holds out some promise of redemption. And this redemption may come, paradoxically it seems, via a figure who can only be called Satanic.

Satan is known as the Great Antagonist, the Adversary, who vows to bring down, first, God, and finding that impossible, Man, God's proudest creation. In Blade Runner, the antagonist of God and Man is clearly the character of Roy Batty, proudest creation of Blade Runner's God-Figure, Eldon Tyrell. Batty seeks vengeance against Tyrell, his god, and along the way wreaks havoc, first in space, where he and his fellow replicants have killed a crew and commandeered their ship, and then on Earth. In general, it is clear that the replicants are to be read as fallen angels. Northrop Frye points out that both angels and devils “are associated with the imagery of the sky” (163). The replicants came to Earth from off-world, from the heavens. Angels and devils (who, of course, were originally angels) are, in the Christian cosmology of Milton, superior to men, containing more “god-like” essence. The replicants are products of the Tyrell Corporation, whose motto is “More Human than Human.” Satan and the rebel-angels “Rais'd impious War in Heav'n and Battel proud / With vain attempt” (I: 43-4). The Son then hurled Satan and his hordes “headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Skie / With hideous ruin and combustion down / To bottomless perdition. …” (I: 45-7) This imagery is drawn from Luke, 10:18, 19 in which Satan fell, “like lightning, out of the sky.”

This association of Satan with flames, fire and light (Lucifer, son of the morning), is reproduced in characterizations of Roy Batty. Eldon Tyrell marvels at how bright Batty's (short) life has been; Batty, when confronting Chew, explicitly conjures up Satanic imagery, saying, “Fiery the angels fell, deep thunder around their shores roared, burning with the fires of Orc.”3 Of course, Batty's greatest Satanic characteristic is his willingness and desire to confront his creator, a creator who, god-like, dwells in Heaven—the penthouse of the 700-story pyramid which houses the Tyrell Corp. Satan engaged “In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav'n (I: 104); Batty negotiates his way through hell before rising to Heaven's penthouse to confront his maker and kill him.

Satan becomes the adversary of Man when he cannot defeat God, his adversarial stance a function of his jealousy of Man. Batty, too, is jealous of Man. As a replicant, Batty is in many ways superior to mankind—in particular, he is stronger and smarter (as seen in the chess game in which Batty's strategy is shown to be superior even to Tyrell's). Yet Batty is flawed, his built-in four-year life span a deterrent to achieving genuine human status. Batty's presence on Earth is against the law, is outlawed, is an affront to the “natural” order, which he now takes pride in rebelling against.

If Batty is Satan, one who works against Mankind's Edenic existence or against Mankind's possible redemption, Rick Deckard, the blade runner, is Adam. At the structural level, Batty's relationship to Deckard is similar to Satan's to Adam. Both Satan and Adam are (or were) favored of God; both are lords of their respective domains, and both may be said to be questioners: Satan in Heaven and Hell, Adam in Eden, seeking to come to terms with their existence.

The place of Satan in Paradise Lost has given rise to an important textual issue revolving around the question of who is the real hero of the narrative. Milton's intentions are clear on this point, namely that Adam is the hero, but the text's intentions seem less clear. The possibility of reading Satan as the hero is very real. Satan can be seen as the ultimate rebel who begins as God's brightest angel and who falls ignominiously into the depths of Hell. By the standards of classical tragedy, Satan is the ultimate tragic hero. The Romantics, of course, especially Byron and the Shelleys, found in Satan the real hero of Milton's epic. Even Milton himself introduces the possibility of reading Satan as the hero not only by the standards of classical tragedy (with which Milton was intimately familiar, needless to say) but through the amount of time devoted to Satan.

Similarly, while Blade Runner obviously finds Rick Deckard cast in the role of hero, it is still entirely possible to see Batty as an alternative. While Deckard's goal of killing the replicants provides the plot's impetus and his voice-over animates our emotional entry into the film, there are many moments in which first-person narration is not used, contrary to the usual hard-boiled detective narratives. The bulk of the sequences in which Deckard's narration is abandoned center around Roy Batty. In fact, the longest periods of time in which Deckard is absent from the screen are a consequence of two long scenes involving Batty. Moreover, Batty's heroism is of a richer mythical nature as he becomes a true questing hero, one who is on a metaphysical as well as a literal search, whereas on one level, Deckard is merely a man doing a job. Of course, Batty must be a worthy antagonist for Deckard's true heroism to emerge and for Deckard's job to take on added dimensions. And while both Batty and Deckard undertake “missions,” Batty's mission is the more emotionally satisfying one for the audience. If the Romantics could see Satan, somewhat perversely, as Milton's true hero, it is certainly easy for modern audiences to conceive of Batty as the true hero of Blade Runner.

Even as we acknowledge Batty's Satanic qualities, we must also see him as both Adam and the Son. The penultimate scene of the film brings these diverse strands together. Batty is first a Satanic “superman” who has killed men and who has even confronted his god and killed him. But in the end Batty's pathos emerges, a pathos which retrospectively heroizes him, and which brings forth some of his Adamic qualities. Batty, like Adam, was created by God (Tyrell) to live in Eden, here the off-world. But Batty has questions about his life and so he seeks answers, tasting forbidden fruit, the fruit of Earth (which is also Heaven inasmuch as it is the residence of the god-Tyrell). Batty's desire to live longer is really the desire to know the meaning of his life. And Batty's quest for meaning also confronts him with emotions which humans believe replicants lack.

Before the Fall, Man is without sin, but he is also without knowledge, without true love, for he must experience love's opposites to appreciate fully its blessings. This is to say that Man in Eden is not really yet Man; thus the Fall is somehow fortunate, for now Man has a choice in his acceptance of God, in his pursuit of knowledge. So, too, Batty—before his “Fall” he is perhaps merely a robot, but after his Fall, his search for knowledge and his discovery of emotions, he becomes as Man. Unlike Man, however, this Adam, this replicant, has no redeemer. But then Batty himself becomes a redeemer: Satan transformed into Adam transformed into the Son of God.

Images of Batty as Christ are scattered throughout Blade Runner. The first shot of Batty is a close-up of his right hand as we hear him say, “time enough.” This same hand, in the film's climactic chase sequence, will have a spike driven through it—its Christ imagery inescapable, although it has the plot significance of giving Batty the stimulating sensation of pain to help him keep up his pursuit of Deckard. It is worth stressing that it is Batty himself who drives this spike through his hand, Batty himself, that is, who undertakes to transform himself into Man's redeemer.

As Batty expires, his time on Earth up, he releases a dove. The dove, of course, is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, a symbol usually associated with light as well. In Paradise Lost, Milton invokes the Holy Spirit who “… from the first / Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread / Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss / And mad'st it pregnant” (I: 19-22). Prophet-like, Batty imparts a sense of loss, a special spiritual vision, saying to Deckard, “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. … All those moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain. Time to die.” And while at this moment in the film we might still think he is referring to Deckard, that it is Deckard's time to die (echoing Leon's line earlier), he is actually expiring, releasing the dove as he does so. The dove flies upward to the heavens, revealing the first daylight shot of this entire noir film.

Now Deckard, as it were, sees the light. He is literally saved (not killed) by Batty. Batty has, moreover, not simply spared Deckard's life, he has demonstrated to the blade runner a profound sense of emotionalism, a deep spirituality, a poetic sense of wonder through his speech and the miracle of the dove—miracle because one takes this dove to be a real (not replicant) dove in a world virtually devoid of natural animal life. This moment marks for Deckard not simply the completion of his job (all the renegade replicants are dead), but the beginning of a new commitment for him, the commitment to his relationship with Rachael, the new Eve. Milton's Paradise Lost ends with the promise of redemption to come for future generations of Mankind; Blade Runner ends with the redemption of one man who will perhaps, Adam-like, bring forth a new race upon the Earth.

In the same way that Roy Batty, Satan-like, threatens to take over the textual energy of Blade Runner, partially enabling us to see Paradise Lost playing in the structure of the film, so too, we find Frankenstein lurking about. In terms of what we may now with some assurance call “the myth of Frankenstein,” Blade Runner shares with Mary Shelley's novel (more than any of the film versions) the Satanic idea of confronting one's creator. The myth upon which this, in turn, borrows is the myth of Prometheus. There are many facets to the Promethean complex of myths, but the key idea in this context is Prometheus as “the personification of the unconquerable will opposing greater power …” (Cotterell 155). The monster of Shelley's novel is the “new Prometheus,” the subtitle of the book.

Of course, the myth of Prometheus also extends to the character of Victor Frankenstein, who wished to grant Mankind a boon. In a sense, both monster and creator in Frankenstein represent Prometheus, a pattern of “doubling” reproduced in Blade Runner, in which Roy Batty and Eldon Tyrell modernize the myth. The pattern of doubling, or overdetermination, recurs throughout Frankenstein and Blade Runner, extending to other characters and characteristics as we will see later. Victor Frankenstein and Eldon Tyrell desire to give Mankind a great gift, a technological innovation of great magnitude, as Prometheus gave the revolution of fire to Man in the myth. Yet in bestowing the gift of life, Victor Frankenstein and Tyrell become as gods, as God, and it is their creations who then take up the Promethean mantle; it is their “monsters” who engage in “dubious Battel” against God. As Diane Johnson points out in her introduction to the Bantam Classic edition of Frankenstein: “As in Promethean legend, the creator has abandoned his creation, and has incurred his wrath; man is embittered and has turned away from God. Like God, Victor creates the monster in a mood of mad pride, and will not meet his commitments to him, will not fulfill his duty” (XV).

Victor and monster evoke Prometheus, as do Tyrell and Batty. But another pattern of doubling may be found in the idea that if Victor and Tyrell play God, then the monster and the replicant play Man. We may note again that Philip Strick has characterized Frankenstein and Blade Runner as being about “the struggle with human facsimiles” (Strick 168). J. P. Telotte feels that Blade Runner is concerned with “the potential doubling of the human body …” (44); Frankenstein is a paradigm of the recurrent appearance of this motif. Other myths of “doubling” (like the golem of Jewish legend) suggest that such monsters are typically felt to be without souls. Hence, what Frankenstein and Blade Runner seem concerned with at this level is the very definition of what it means to be human, to be a real person. Telotte neatly describes this issue as “the problematic nature of the human being and the difficult task of being human” (44). The monster in Shelley's novel, the nameless, soulless creature, philosophizes about his place in the world and his relationship to his God/creator. Roy Batty too embarks on a quest to come to terms with his life and with his relationship to God and Man.

Both Frankenstein's monster and Roy Batty come to realize an essential separateness from humankind, a separateness not so much a function of their own lack (the lack of a soul) but of their being perceived as lacking. Their ostracism from the human race causes them to develop a hatred for humanity. In the case of Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost, who is also a separate creation, the hatred is for God's new favored being and results in a desire to see Man fall; in Frankenstein and Blade Runner, it is a hatred of the race of which the creator is a part, yet, by virtue of the creators' Faustian and Promethean drives, also separate. In Frankenstein, the monster first strikes at the creator indirectly, by attacking family and friends. So too, Batty first strikes at Chew, the manufacturer of replicant eyes, and then exploits Sebastian, himself a god-like, mini-creator (“I make friends”).

Despite their hatred for humanity, the monster and the replicant ultimately desire a place in human society. But human society denies them this on the basis of their perceived lack, for these monsters are the incarnations of the id, the repressed double, the doppelganger. When the monsters confront their creators, they force this recognition to arise. The confrontation between creature and creator is the confrontation between Self and Other. In Frankenstein, the confrontation proves tragic; in Blade Runner, the confrontation is complicated, for Batty must not only confront Tyrell, his creator, but also Deckard. Ultimately, Deckard (and not Tyrell) is Batty's true self; Batty is Deckard's Other. And whereas in Frankenstein, creator and creation, Self and Other, pass from the Earth, in Blade Runner a healing vision is professed; a union, a re-union to be precise, comes about in the sacrifice of the Other.4

In dealing with the film's borrowings from Paradise Lost and Frankenstein, we have detailed, in a sense, the film's independent borrowings. That is, we have seen how Blade Runner reworks motifs apparent in Paradise Lost and (separate) motifs recurrent in Frankenstein. What needs to be done now is to tell the rest of the story, the story's Other half. This is precisely the story of what Mary Shelley herself “borrowed” from Milton, the major, disguised, issue which is in some sense at the center of Frankenstein. For Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as an “answer” to Paradise Lost, an answer specifically to the “question” of Eve. And it is precisely “Eve” which we have thus far ignored in Blade Runner, and which we must examine.

If Rick Deckard, the blade runner, is Adam, then Rachael, a replicant, is Eve. Such a quick reading is easily consonant with the film's ending: Rick and Rachael head off together to a “green world,” a Garden of Eden, to start a new life together. However, such a linking with Adam and Eve, while obvious, is also facile, a clichéd bit of symbolism unworthy of the true creative spirit behind the film. If Deckard is Adam, and Rachael is Eve, then at the end of the film they may not head to Paradise, they must be expelled from it: paradise lost. Can we say in any way that the Adam and Eve roles have been present in the film before this final sequence (especially since the sequence was added to the film following preview screenings involving a different original ending)? Can we say, indeed, that Deckard was living in Paradise at the film's start, like Adam in Paradise Lost, but that, like Adam, it was only in the expulsion from paradise that the true epic meaning of the work could come forth?

We have seen that the setting of Blade Runner may be compared to Milton's image of Hell. But we may also see the film's spectacular cityscape in terms of Milton's Paradise—not visually, of course, but structurally. Paradise is the work of God, who created it with an abundance of teeming life. So, too, the city in Blade Runner is both a teeming mass of activity and a created product, for not only do we find human beings born of Man and Woman (presumably), but also replicants created by the god-Tyrell. We find not only the illegal replicants who must be hunted down and killed, but also animal replicants, perfectly legal, created in the absence of natural life (an aspect of the film less clear than in Dick's novel). This aspect of animal-replicants arises in a scene which takes place in “heaven,” the massive headquarters of the Tyrell Corp.; Deckard, when he (significantly) first meets Rachael, is taken aback by the presence of an owl, wondering if it is real or replicant. This not only foreshadows his confusion about Rachael, but is an index of Tyrell's creative powers.

Before the creation of Eve in Milton's epic, Adam performs his job in Eden, but feels lonely, alienated. Adam explains this in a lengthy conversation with the angel Raphael through the middle books of Paradise Lost. At one point he explains his emptiness: “… In solitude / What happiness, who can enjoy alone, / Or all enjoying, what contentment find?” (VIII: 364-66). Rick Deckard, at the film's beginning, is similarly alienated. His initial discontent, like Adam's, may be related to the disparity between himself and the other citizens of this futuristic Los Angeles. The decadent revellers, scavengers and lumpenproletariat who inhabit the city are not fit companions for Deckard, who, like Tyrell, lives alone high above the city. (This aspect of Deckard's relation to his environment is clearer in Dick's novel. The majority of all “qualified” citizens have emigrated off-world, leaving mostly “specials,” genetically mutated, inferior human beings, to inhabit the city. J. F. Sebastian mentions this to the replicant, Pris, in one of their scenes together in Blade Runner.)

In Paradise Lost, Adam complains to God: “… Of fellowship I speak / Such as I seek, fit to participate / All rational delight, wherein the brute / Cannot be human consort; …” (VIII: 389-92). Thus God creates Eve for Adam. And the Eve that he creates, in the words of Diane McColley, is “imaginative and rational, sensuous and intelligent, passionate and chaste, and free and responsible …,” (3) qualities which also perfectly describe Rachael in the film.

There is more to Rachael that recalls Eve, or the function of Eve, in Milton's work. For instance, McColley maintains that Milton wished to redress the image of women then (and still) commonly held:

The idea of Eve that Milton's age inherited resulted from a dualistic habit of mind that he strove in all his works to reform: the supposition that nature and spirit, body and soul, passion and reason, and art and truth are inherently antithetical and that woman, the primordial temptress, represents the dark and dangerous … side of each antithesis.


To the contemporary reader of Paradise Lost, foreknowledge of Eve's tragic succumbing to temptation, bringing Adam down with her, makes her image a profoundly ambiguous one. On the one hand, as described by Adam, she has many desirable qualities; yet she leads to the Fall. Blade Runner similarly relies on an archetypal set of conventions to create an ambiguous image of Woman, the classic femme fatale of film noir. Rachael wears her hair pinned up behind her head, and is often seen wearing jackets with the classic Joan Crawford padded shoulders. Her links with the noir era of filmmaking are further stressed by the saxophone music on the soundtrack (in contrast to the synthesized score of the bulk of the film), and by the use of low-key lighting with a heavy reliance on shadows, especially the “bar effect” created by light streaming through half-open blinds. This iconography automatically makes Rachael suspect—a potential spider woman, the woman-as-temptress, our fallen mother, Eve.

Yet Milton's Eve is not simply a vain creature and an evil temptress. Eve is called “Daughter of God and Man, accomplisht Eve” (IV: 660) and “Daughter of God and Man, immortal Eve” (IX: 291), while “Son of God,” and “Son of Man” are the names of the incarnate Christ (McColley 52). By the same token in Blade Runner, Tyrell calls Batty his “prodigal son,” and refers to Rachael, at one point, as “my child.”5 Of course, the links between Batty and Rachael are already strong: both are replicants, both are products of the Tyrell Corp. If Batty is a doppelganger for Deckard, we may see a stronger link between Deckard and Rachael. Further, Ridley Scott asserts that Deckard may be, or is, a replicant himself:

At one stage, we considered having Deckard turn out to be, ironically, a replicant. In fact, if you look at the film closely, especially the ending, you may get some clues … that Deckard is indeed a replicant. At the end there's a kind of confirmation that he is—at least that he believes it possible. Within the context of the overall story, whether it's true or not in the book, having Deckard be a replicant is the only reasonable solution.

(emphasis original) (Peary 302)

While one could argue that Deckard is not a replicant, a blurring of the distinction between human and replicant is a major thematic point of the film. The policeman and the replicants, the hunter and the hunted, have profound similarities. Deckard himself tells us that “replicants weren't supposed to have feelings; neither were blade runners.” Deckard is surprised by the depth of emotion and feeling expressed by Rachael who, he discovers only after lengthy testing, is a replicant—a fact of which she was initially unaware. At another point in the film, Rachael angrily wonders if Deckard had ever been tested, because he is so emotionless. As the film proceeds, Deckard begins to share a profound emotion with the replicants: fear. Both male replicants, Leon and Roy Batty, actually confront him on this score. Just before Rachael kills him, Leon says to Deckard, “Painful to live in fear, isn't it?”, while later on, Batty, during the film's penultimate scene, ruefully remarks, “Quite an experience to live in fear. …”

The blurring of distinctions between human and replicant is further heightened by the relationship between Deckard and Rachael in terms of the healing and uplifting power of love. A quotation from Paradise Lost sheds light on this notion. God tells Adam:

… love refines
The thoughts, and heart enlarges, hath his seat
In Reason, and is judicious, is the scale
By which heav'nly Love maist ascend,
Not sunk in carnal pleasure, for which cause
Among the Beasts no Mate for thee was found.

(VIII: 589-94)

We may say, in this sense, that Rachael was specifically created for Deckard, who rejected the life in “paradise” before he met Rachael; that Rachael, like Eve for Adam, provided “meet help” (Rachael, as we noted above, kills Leon, saving Deckard's life). Milton attempted to redress the prevailing notion that Eve was simply the evil temptress; so, too, Ridley Scott goes against the iconography of film noir. In the hands of both Milton and Scott, Adam and Eve, Deckard and Rachael, are redeemed and redeem each other.

The end sequences in Paradise Lost and Blade Runner also bear a remarkable structural similarity. Adam and Eve leave paradise together to face a new, unknown and challenging world; Deckard and Rachael fly away from Los Angeles (even in the reputed original ending they enter the elevator together) similarly to meet an unknown fate. Just before the expulsion from Eden, Adam is told to let Eve sleep. The angel, Michael, says, “… Ascend / This Hill; let Eve (for I have drencht her eyes) / Here sleep below while thou to foresight wak'st, / As once thou slepst, while Shee to life was formed” (XI: 366-9). Then, as Adam prepares to leave the Garden he is told:

… go, waken Eve;
Her also I with gentle Dreams have calm'd
Portending good, and all her spirits compos'd
To meek submission: thou at season fit
Let her with thee partake what thou has heard,
Chiefly what may concern her Faith to know,
The great deliverance by her Seed to come
(For by the Womans Seed) on all Mankind.
That ye may live, which will be many dayes,
Both in one Faith unanimous though sad,
With cause for evils past, yet much more cheer'd
With meditation on the happie end.

(XII: 594-605)

The visitation upon Eve of the angel, Michael, may be compared to the visit Gaff, another blade runner, pays to Rachael while Deckard confronts Batty. (Gaff's visit takes place offscreen, but we know he has been to see Rachael by the telltale origami unicorn figure he leaves behind.) When Deckard returns to his apartment, Rachael is sleeping peacefully. He awakens her for their trip together through life, a trip “which will be many dayes.” Or as Deckard says, “We didn't know how long we had together. Who does?” As Milton says, at the epic's end:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

The merging of Deckard and Rachael, of human and replicant, brought about by the doppelganger Batty, enables Blade Runner to put forth a vision of redemption slightly at odds with Milton's. For, of course, when Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise, it is not a time of rejoicing. The Fall is provident only because it prepares the way for the ultimate redeemer, Christ. In the film there is no further redemption after the “Fall.” Redemption comes to Deckard and Rachael from the humanistic idea of transcendence through love amidst one's own existential condition. “Humanism,” taken at its most literal, is a way of life centered on human interests which asserts that self-realization is attained through reason, a significant philosophy in this film about human facsimiles, about what it means to be human. It is this ultimate question that Blade Runner derives in a fundamental way from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Frankenstein posed the question of what it means to be human by a certain reading, a rewriting, of Paradise Lost. To Shelley and the Romantics, Satan was the true hero of Milton's poem, and in Shelley's novelistic rewriting of it, the monster, the Satanic rebel, was the unequivocal hero of the piece. It is the monster who poses the deepest questions, the monster who is a tragic figure, the monster who kills and torments, and who is, in turn, tormented. It is this creature without a soul who is the most soulful.

Thus far, such an analysis of Frankenstein relates to Blade Runner in terms of the character of Roy Batty. This is to say that from Satan to the nameless monster to Batty, the questing hero, the true tragic figure, is male. However, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar claim, “… the monster's narrative is a philosophical meditation on what it means to be born without a ‘soul’ or a history, as well as an exploration of what it feels like to be a ‘filthy mass that move(s) and talk(s),’ a thing, an other, a creature of the second sex” (235). In other words, Frankenstein's monster is a woman, is Woman, and Frankenstein, at its most profound level, is a Woman's novel. Yet as both a Woman's novel and a rewriting of Paradise Lost, the figure absent from the tale, paradoxically, is Eve. As Gilbert and Gubar assert, however, far from being absent, this very absence denotes her presence; all of the major characters are in some sense Eve. In Freudian terms (not used by Gilbert and Gubar), Eve is both displaced and overdetermined.

To prove their case that both Victor and his monster are Eve, Gilbert and Gubar point to much textual evidence. One of their main points rests on the idea of problem-solving. The major characters, especially Victor and the monster, try to come to terms with their presence in a fallen world, a fall which has taken them not merely out of Eden, but into Hell, along with Sin, Satan and Eve.

… their questionings are in some sense female, for they belong in that line of literary women's questionings of the fall into gender which goes back at least to Anne Finch's plaintive “How are we fal'n?” and forward to Sylvia Plath's horrified “I have fallen very far!”


Related to the idea of the Fall is the fascination in the novel with family histories, “especially those of orphans.” As orphans, the characters become, are, alienated “from the patriarchal chain-of-being” (Gilbert and Gubar 227). In Paradise Lost, it might be added, that when Adam and Eve fall, they, too, become orphans, alienated from the ultimate patriarch, God-the-Father.

It is also possible to see Victor Frankenstein, in specific ways, as Eve. Creating his monster, Victor gives birth through a description remarkably like labor—and a painful one at that. Like Eve, too, Victor pursues the secrets of nature, disobeying the prime injunction against eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And when he gives birth it is like Satan giving birth to Sin, for he has let loose a monster on the world. In classical Greek mythology it is not Satan who is responsible for Sin and Death, it is Woman, Pandora, Prometheus' sister-in-law, present as well by her absence in this story of “a modern Prometheus.” Certainly, then, it is not too difficult to see the feminist aspects of Shelley's gloss on Paradise Lost. But Blade Runner is similarly allegorically inclined, relying on some of the same motifs of feminist consciousness.

We have already seen how “Eve” is overtly present in Blade Runner. But Eve is also displaced onto other characters. First, as in Frankenstein, we may point to a fascination on the part of the replicants with “family histories.” Orphans, without parents and alienated from the Family of Man, the replicants nevertheless carry photographs of a past they assert (or may even believe, as Rachael initially does), is their own. Deckard, too, surrounds himself with pictures which clearly are not of him or his past (one of the clues suggesting Deckard's possible status as a replicant). Second, Tyrell claims parenthood of both Batty and Rachael, a parenthood like that of God-the-Father, but also, as he is a man, in the human sense. Tyrell, without a wife, is a parent nonetheless, a mother who lets evil (the replicants) loose upon the world by sinning against nature. Tyrell, in this sense, like Victor Frankenstein, is Pandora.

If Eve is present in Frankenstein as a figure displaced onto Victor and his monster, then both Batty and Rachael are also Eve, brother and sister, two sides of each other, each a doppelganger for Deckard. In terms of overdetermination, Rachael is doubly Eve, for she is both Woman and Monster. If the monster in Frankenstein is Woman by implication, by structure, the monster in Blade Runner is already a woman. Linda Williams points out in a Lacanian psychoanalytic reading of women in horror films:

It may very well be … that the power and potency of the monster body in many classic horror films … should not be interpreted as an eruption of the normally repressed animal sexuality of the civilized male, … but as the feared power and potency of a different kind of sexuality (the monster as double for the women).


The fear of the monster is the fear of the Other, as the (psychoanalytic) fear of Woman is the fear of the Other. The lack of a soul is the displaced lack of the phallus, the linch-pin of the fear of women.6 In Blade Runner, replicants are feared as Other, as other-than-human, and therefore must be killed. Women in film noir and in Horror are feared as Other, and must similarly be killed, or at least punished. As a noir s.f. film, Blade Runner overdetermines this fear of Woman-Monster, but shows how such fears may be overcome through acceptance of the Other as an aspect of Self.

Thus, at a certain level, Deckard, our Adam, is also our Eve, and the other characters are his doubles—s/he is a Faustian overachiever, a Promethean boon-granter, a questioning Woman. Deckard is the true creator, the Woman-writer. Gilbert and Gubar point to certain dominant themes of 19th (and even 20th) century women's fiction which also obtain in Blade Runner: “enclosure and escape,” “fantasies in which maddened doubles function as asocial surrogates for docile selves,” “images of frozen landscapes and fiery interiors,” and the “sense of powerlessness, her fear that she inhabits alien and incomprehensible places” (Gilbert and Gubar 45-92). In this view, the other characters in this narrative are Deckard's imaginings, and such imaginings portend a return to wholeness through the acceptance of difference. Transcendence and redemption are achieved through obedience to the god of the true, the whole, the human self.

Paradise Lost and Frankenstein each seek to put forth a vision of human questing, of transcendence and redemption, in popular idioms specific to their time: Paradise Lost through the epic, Frankenstein through the Gothic thriller. Milton reworks the Book of Genesis and the cosmology of the New Testament in a powerful way, but in a form familiar to his time. Frankenstein similarly rewrites Paradise Lost in a genre newly popular, the novel. So, too, Blade Runner utilizes a popular, contemporary form, the Hollywood science fiction film, to explore and rethink the mythic motifs underlying Paradise Lost and Frankenstein. All three works began as popular culture; Paradise Lost and Frankenstein have become transcendent works of art. It is too early to say if Blade Runner will enter the realm of high culture (has any film been admitted to the canon?). It is also doubtful if any of Blade Runner's increasing number of cult fans really care. But those of us who look to popular art for visions of hope, for glimpses at the possibility of humankind's spiritual rebirth, redemption and transcendence would do well to look carefully at this film.


  1. “Many critics have noticed that Frankenstein is one of the key Romantic ‘readings’ of Paradise Lost.” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979), p. 221. See also p. 189: “Mary Shelley's Frankenstein … is at least in part a despairingly acquiescent ‘misreading’ of Paradise Lost, with Eve-Sin apparently exorcised from the story but really translated into the monster that Milton hints she is.”

  2. All further references to Paradise Lost will be in this format which identifies first the book, then the lines. Lest there be variations in Milton's poem, these quotes are taken from John T. Shawcross, ed., The Complete Poetry of John Milton, (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1971).

  3. Batty's recitation is a variation on a verse from William Blake's America: A Prophecy. The exact lines read:

    Fiery the Angels rose, & as they rose deep thunder
    Around their shores, indignant burning with the fires
              of Orc;

    As Robin Wood notes, “Blake's poem is a celebration of the American Revolution, a narrative about the founding of modern America … Orc leads the revolt against oppression; he is one of Blake's devil-angels, descendent of Milton's Lucifer as reinterpreted by Blake.” Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia UP, 1986), p. 185.

    Note that Batty's quote is not an exact one, the most significant difference being the change from Blake's “Angels rose” to Batty's “angels fell.” Wood interprets this shift as a deliberate one, claiming that “[t]he change from ‘rose’ to ‘fell’ must be read … in terms of the end of the American democratic principle of freedom, its ultimate failure. …” (ibid, emphasis original) In no way must we read the change in this fashion. Rather, I would suggest, the reference to fallen angels is precisely to strengthen the Miltonic aspects of Batty's character. Significantly, this variation of the Blake verse does not appear in the screenplay of the film, but was added later, probably by the British Ridley Scott himself.

  4. For further discussion of the significance of the sacrifice of the Other see Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977), especially pp. 143-168.

  5. I am indebted to Telotte's article, p. 48, for noticing Tyrell's address of Rachael as “my child.”

  6. The classic Lacanian reading of the function of Women in mainstream cinema is Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16:3 (Autumn 1975), pp. 6-18.

Works Cited

Cotterell, Arthur. A Dictionary of World Mythology. New York: Perigee Books, 1979.

Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination. New Haven: Yale, 1979.

Johnson, Diane. Introduction to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

McColley, Diane K. Milton's Eve. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Peary, Danny. “Directing Alien and Blade Runner: An Interview with Ridley Scott.” Omni's Screen Flights Screen Fantasies: The Future according to Science Fiction Cinema. Garden City: Doubleday, 1984.

Strick, Philip. “The Age of the Replicate.” Sight & Sound 53:3 (1982).

Telotte, J. P. “Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film.” Film Quarterly 36:3 (Spring 1983).

Williams, Linda. “When the Woman Looks.” Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism. The American Film Institute Monograph Series, Vol. 3. Frederick, Md.: Univ. Pub. of America, 1984.

W. Russel Gray (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4741

SOURCE: Gray, W. Russel. “Entropy, Energy, Empathy: Blade Runner and Detective Fiction.” In Retrofitting “Blade Runner”: Issues in Ridley Scott's “Blade Runner” and Philip K. Dick's “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” edited by Judith B. Kerman, pp. 53-65. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Gray notes that the plot of Blade Runner finds its origins in the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1940s, asserting that the film is both energized by the traditions of, and contributes to the revitalization of, the detective genre.]

“You don't get anything for nothing, Sweetheart.” So might Sam Spade state the First Law of Energy. Spade's world-weary successor, Philip Marlowe, could add “You can't even break even,” a hard-boiled formulation of the Second Law (a.k.a. Entropy). Ridley Scott's Blade Runner suggests that the twenty-first century private detective may resemble Rick Deckard, a run-down, burned out bounty hunter.

Rick Deckard's Los Angeles of 2019 also is run down. Film reviewer Richard Grenier noted the signs (68). Animals are rare if not extinct. Manufacturers produce synthetic animals and, for outer space slave work, artificial humans. Bicycles glide through dim streets of what was our foremost automobile city. Steady rain suggests harmful atmospheric changes. Fire lights up the skies over refineries. Atop old buildings strangely old-fashioned wind-machines slowly turn.

Blade Runner's Los Angeles resembles Hell on a good day (or night). Pauline Kael's review registered the ambiance:

… air so rotten that it's dark outside, yet when we're inside, the brightest lights are on the outside, from the giant searchlights scanning the city … scrambled sordid aspects of … Chinatown, the Casbah, and Times Square … an enormous, mesmerizing ad for Coca Cola, and Art Deco neon signs … in a blur of languages … stray Hari-Krishna-ites and porcupine-headed punks … poor, hustling Asians and assorted foreigners … dizzying architectural angles … buglike police cars that lift off. …


In such a society the creating of artificial life is a growth industry, a respectable big business of a future society that failed to ask the right questions—thus the polluted and diminished moral environment. Scott conveys this insight through a twenty-first century private eye of the Philip Marlowe mold. As Leonard G. Heldreth points out elsewhere in this book (“The Cutting Edge of Blade Runner”) Rick Deckard's Marlowe overtones derive from filmed Chandler works, notably 1944's Murder, My Sweet.

Initially blade runner Deckard is a coolly efficient, world-weary eliminator of immigrating androids. For much of the film, like Murder, My Sweet's Philip Marlowe, he uneasily cooperates with the police. However, when he realizes that he lacks some of the qualities that distinguish humans from “replicants,” he senses the emptiness at his own center. In his deepening loneliness and alienation he falls in love—even though he has evidence that Rachael is a replicant (Grenier 69). For much of Blade Runner director Ridley Scott seems to imply that the private detective and his genre are just about burnt out by 2019. But at the same time Scott appropriates elements from science fiction—“bootlegs” new energy sources, as an energy theorist would say. In so doing Scott revitalizes the moral center of the traditional private eye story. For, at the heart of Blade Runner's society is a crucial moral issue indigenous to the future but at the same time evocative of heroic action from a loner detective.

Scott's damp, dark, disorderly megalopolis reflects the effects of decades of waste and pollution. If one expert on entropy and the economic process is correct, our own society is tending towards such a state. Says Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen: “Like the aging of an organism, the working of the Entropy Law through the economic process is relatively slow but it never ceases … its effect makes itself visible only by accumulation … since the product of the economic process is waste, waste is an inevitable result of that process and … increases in greater proportion than the intensity of economic activity” (Georgescu-Roegen). Blade Runner's sets were designed to convey just that impression. While interviewing Scott, film writer Harlan Kennedy remarked “The movie's set designs show a style of ‘additive’ architecture: Pipes and pillars and porches etc., are superimposed on the outside of older buildings. Does this ‘exoskeletal’ look have a secondary purpose or meaning in the film?” Scott replied:

Primarily a logical one. We're in a city which is in a state of overkill, of snarled up energy, where you can no longer remove a building because it costs far more than constructing one in its place. So the whole economic process is slowed down. Once a structure like the Empire State Building goes up, it's probably going to be there for … you name it. How the hell are they going to take it down? So it's a physical feeling you get about that society.


These are consequences of entropy, or the principle of energy degradation, which Sir Arthur Edington said holds “the supreme position among laws of nature”: energy flows downhill, from a compact, ordered state to a dispersed, disordered, degraded one.1 In other words, “The material world moves from orderly states to an ever-increasing disorder … the final situation of the universe will be one of maximal disorder” (Arnheim 7).

Some energy theorists believe that “bootlegging,” or the tapping or utilization of energy from previously ignored or unused sources reverses or at least delays the process of entropy (Georgescu-Roegen 6). Initially, before available energy is committed, or used, it is in a free or unbound state, and the degradation or downhill process of energy utilization (entropy) is desirably low. However, when available or “known” energy is largely bound, committed, being used up, energy degradation—or entropy—is at a high level. Appropriation from other sources leads to at least temporary revitalization or renewal.

By analogy, a new popular genre, especially before it is recognized as a discrete genre, implies alternate possibilities of development; entropy, as it were, is low. But after formularization sets in, energy wanes and revitalizing elements are needed to delay or avert entropy.

Rudolf Arnheim has offered guidelines for applying entropy theory to art:

… increase of entropy is due to two quite different kinds of effect … a striving towards simplicity … will promote orderliness and the lowering of the level of order, and, on the other hand, disorderly destruction. Both lead to tension reduction. The two phenomena manifest themselves more clearly the less they are modified by the counter-tendency, namely the anabolic establishment of a structural theme, which influences and maintains tension. In the arts the theme represents what the work “is about.” When its influence is weakened one of two things will happen. Either the need for simplicity will no longer be counterbalanced by complex experience and invention. Released from these constraints, it will yield all the more strongly to the pleasure of tension reduction and content itself with a minimal structure at a low level of order. In the extreme, it will reach the emptiness of homogeneity. … Or in the other case, organized structure will simply succumb to disintegration, either by corrosion and friction or by the mere incapacity to hold together.


In this context Blade Runner represents the anabolic influence—the establishment of a structural theme that influences and maintains tension: what had become a static (private eye) genre is revitalized by Deckard's self-investigation, which parallels his outer quest. When the thematic element is weakened, as in static plots without such elements as the inner vulnerability of the hero, empty homogeneity and/or disintegration set in, as had been the case before Blade Runner. The corrosion and friction took the form of parody and lampoon.

Thus genre entropy is a state of progressive depletion in energy and vitality leading to structural stasis. At one recent stage in the evolution of the mystery/detective genre the private eye became a kind of moral exemplar. Then came rigidity and, ultimately, total disintegration (New Yorker parodies, first by S. J. Perelman, later, Woody Allen; and Robert Altman's Marlowe send-up in his Long Goodbye film). Ridley Scott and writers David Peoples and Hampton Fancher “bootlegged” energy from science fiction to revitalize the eye genre. Deckard is not quite Marlowe. In the context of his genre he is an older, more vulnerable, and hence more credible hero. Other examples recently appeared in print fiction: the “new” Travis McGee in John D. MacDonald's The Lonely Silver Rain and the physically and ethically more vulnerable Spenser of Robert B. Parker's Valediction and A Catskill Eagle.

Since 1900 detective fiction has periodically survived what appeared to be terminal entropy. In 1905 an anonymous London article lamented “The Passing of the Detective in Literature” (Haycroft 511-12). It seemed that the Dupin/Holmes cerebral eccentric and even less spectacular contemporaries and successors such as Arthur Morrison's Martin Hewitt and Clifford Ashdown's Romney Pringle were passing into decay. Such sleuths were making “no new conquests” and “surviving only within the compass of the magazines.” Their stock in trade, deductive intuition, was being rendered passé by modern police methods, and the non-police detective was expected to soon become “an inmate of limbo with the dodo.” Not quite. Additional unusual detectives were not long in coming. Jacques Futrelle's “thinking machine,” Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, was on the scene in 1907, and in 1911 the first Father Brown collection was in print. They bought time for the discovery of new energizing elements.

Revitalization was to come through clue-puzzles that gave readers a “fair chance” to compete with the detective. This trend was endorsed and reinforced by so-called “Rules of the Game,” which were promulgated and encouraged by the Detective Club and in particular, Willard Huntington Wright (S. S. Van Dine) and Monsignor Ronald Knox.

Also, as became more apparent later, in the hard-boiled era the detective was being urbanized. In the 1920s and 1930s even the genteel “Golden Age” sleuths of Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, and Michael Innes were “occasionally lured out to isolated country mansions to contemplate a peculiarly strange and puzzling murder, but they themselves remained distinctly urban types, always bringing a touch of the city into sleepy little villages and desolate moors” (Cawelti 140).

British “Golden Age” or “Formal” detective novels bootlegged energy from the literary heritage. George Grella has identified such elements from the comedy of manners as typical heroes, characters, archetypes, and patterns of dramatic action. The result was a thriller that maintained the necessary comedy of manners correspondence between social and moral codes. In Grella's words:

… a minute flaw in breeding, taste, or behavior—the wrong tie, the wrong accent, “bad form” of any sort—translates as a violation of an accepted ethical system and provides grounds for expulsion or condemnation. Because of this system the unofficial investigator succeeds where the police fail. They are ordinary bourgeois citizens who intrude into a closed, aristocratic society; unable to comprehend the complex and delicate social code, they are invariably stymied.


Also, Grella relates the usual characters of Formal detective novels to the (Jonsonian) humors characters of literary comedy, and even pinpoints the transition from the “Great Detective” of short fiction to the “comic hero” of the novel: Philip Trent of Trent's Last Case was the “progenitor of all the insouciant dilettantes who breeze gracefully through detective fiction for the next thirty years”—to name a few: Reginald Fortune, Anthony Gethryn, Albert Campion, Peter Wimsey, and Philo Vance (88). Recharged, the genre flourished, becoming from World War I onwards the most popular fictional form in European and American culture (91).

But by 1941 some observers found stasis if not decline in evidence. Mannerism had encouraged what Harrison Steeves called a boring parade of “unique detective personalities.” Further, Steeves felt that the genre was afflicted by “hardened arteries … cellular disintegration and exhaustion of physical resources.” In a word, entropy. The unmistakable signs were “excessive ingenuity, dissonant cleverness, an infectious flippancy, and indifference to moral scruple; above all, a failure of human interest in those disorders of the soul that underlie desperate acts …” (525-26). A lack, one might say, of empathy.

Dr. Steeves—Columbia professor, critic, and himself a mystery writer—was not alone in his views. Philip Van Doren Stern saw the effects of creeping mannerism in terms of character and atmosphere. Stern felt that by being too concerned with murder and detection the mystery was neglecting the reactions of its characters. He further believed that to make murder more credible on modern streets it would be necessary to restore its natural terrors, to get back to murders that are done simply and quickly, not by exotic means (533, 535).

By 1944 Raymond Chandler could add to the indictment and even identify one of the agents of renewal. In his “Simple Art of Murder” essay Chandler defended the “hard-boiled” novelists such as Dashiell Hammett and attacked “classic” detective stories, which, he said

… do not really come off intellectually as problems … and artistically as fiction. They are too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world … if the writers of this fiction wrote about the kind of murders that happen, they would also have to write about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived … Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley … Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.

(393, 396)

Renewal occurred on both sides of the Atlantic. New energy coursed from the American pulp magazine. Its vigorous style would thrive on its native grounds and travel well, finding appreciative readers in Britain also. Bootlegged from or perhaps even by Ring Lardner and Ernest Hemingway, this new influence would contribute more and more eccentric detectives, but mainly it brought a new sense of vernacular and social realism. Urbanization of the detective reached new heights—or perhaps depths—in the hard-boiled pulps. Their sleuths tended to be freelancers and usually were not of the social milieu of the Golden Age's amateurs. They sprang from cracks in the city's concrete—Race Williams, Black Burton, Keyhole Kerry, and many others (Goulart). Soon their irregular ranks were augmented by the so-called “defective detectives” identified by Gary Hoppenstand and Ray Browne: Paul Ernst's Seekay had no face, only a blank sheet of celluloid; John Kobler's Petter Quest suffered from glaucoma; Nat Schachner's Nicholas Street was an amnesiac (5-7).

The hard-boiled school's new language and realistic portrayal of America's social diversity even found an audience in Britain. During the 1920s and 1930s the Formal detective novel had reassured its middle class readership that Britain's social class system was intact (Worpole 82-3). For too long the shape of the genre was determined by the desire of middle and upper class readers to have “objects of disdain—ethnics, criminals, the working class, crime-ridden environments” (Winks 111). British readers rarely encountered working-class characters, except as cooks, butlers, domestic servants, gardeners, or local police (the “rural idiocy” precept) (Worpole 83). Thus it is not surprising that working class British readers seeking realism in diction, setting, and characterization turned increasingly to American hard-boiled writers. The American fiction was “vernacular, terse, rather tough.” And the new urban setting was “attractive to the urban working class in Britain for whom the country-house murder was remote both in time and space” (Worpole 83).

British and American readers could both respond to the hard-boiled school's urban settings. In John Cawelti's words “a swinging, sprawling, rapidly changing, disorganized but glamourous American city” would represent “the combination of corruption and glamour necessary to produce the situations and set the tempo” (154-55). Other elements identified by Cawelti no doubt made such stories more popular with working class readers than the Formal detective story (145-58). For one, the hero could move in and about the world of wealth and privilege but usually was at odds with it. Also, he was tough enough to stand up to physical intimidation and tough-minded enough to reject various temptations. Betrayal also would be his lot—by a female or by a putatively respectable adversary linked to the dark underside of society. Often he would assert a code of private justice, informed with empathy and transcending the letter of the law. Thus Marlowe's compassion for the invalid, dying General Sternwood results in institutionalization rather than public exposure of the murdering daughter in The Big Sleep; similarly, at the end of The High Window Marlowe can settle for the poetic justice of using the murderess Elizabeth Bright Murdock's money to return her wrongfully guiltful secretary to the more wholesome and innocent environment of her Kansas home.

But by 1973, in Robert Altman's film of The Long Goodbye, there was a “slack-jawed” nebbish of a Marlowe—in the words of Pauline Kael, a schlemiel who couldn't even win an argument with his cat. “The pulp pretense that (Marlowe's) chivalrous code was armor has collapsed,” wrote Kael, “and the romantic machismo of Bogart's Marlowe in The Big Sleep has evaporated” (133). Perhaps the entropy of a genre is at its height when parody turns to lampoon. Earlier good-natured spoofs of the hard-boiled yarn by S. J. Perelman (“Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer”) and Woody Allen (“Mr. Big”) gave way to Altman's avowed intent to “put Marlowe to rest for good” by juxtaposing Chandler's forties hero and forties values with the California of the ask-God-for-his-I.D. seventies (Gregory 47).

After Altman's sendup, private eye writers continued scratching the city's concrete, apparently trying to provide a tough fictional detective for every city with a baseball franchise. Among others were Atlanta's Hardman, Cincinnati's Harry Stoner, Detroit's Amos Walker, San Francisco's Marsh Tanner, Boston's Spenser, and at least a handful of operators in minor league cities. But the outer limits in prose may have been reached when the formula went international. One series was about “The Inquisitor,” supposedly the Pope's hired gun. Again the genre was showing signs of wear.

Scott's Blade Runner initially seems to continue the downward trend augured by Altman's The Long Goodbye. Rick Deckard, certainly recognizable as part of the private eye tradition, has few if any friends, no family, and at first no lover. Also, he has a strong sense of duty, takes fearful punishment, and works in uneasy alliance with the establishment. But there are disquieting departures from the formula. Unlike Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer, the blade runner is affectless and ideal-less. Scott has moved the Chandlerian detective much farther into the future than did Altman—a future whose setting is dark and decaying, one where the border between real and artificial humanity has been blurred. For a good part of the film Deckard lacks a moral center, or even the bourgeois raison d'etre of the married, status-conscious Deckard of Philip K. Dick's novel. But heroic renewal occurs by the end of the film. Empathy has entered the empty center of Deckard's consciousness; he has discovered an affinity to “that hidden moral center that separates Spade, Marlowe, and Lew Archer from the confusions and amorality within which they move” (Gregory 47).

In pondering the nature of his designated victims, Deckard comes to question his own identity. Perhaps, as Richard Grenier has suggested, peering into the eyes of suspected replicants during the empathy test has made him aware of the hollowness of his own life (69). In a revealing scene in Deckard's apartment after the testing of Rachael his discovers that, though a replicant, she has “feelings,” and, though a hunter, so does he. After explaining that she is a replicant with implanted memories he seems taken aback at her reaction and says he made a bad joke—she's not a replicant. She cries, he goes to get her a drink, but she puts down the false memory photos and flees. Then, soliloquizes Deckard: “Replicants weren't supposed to have feelings. Neither were blade runners. What the hell was happening to me?”

These reflections and Deckard's combat and dialogue with Roy Batty lead to a revealing exchange of perspectives. As J. P. Telotte has noted, men and androids begin seeing themselves in each other and questioning their very nature (49). Replicant Batty has acted out human mythological and Freudian scenarios—not only searching for his “father”—Tyrell—but literally destroying him. And Deckard ultimately is unwilling to kill replicant Rachael, whose signs of humanity are rare in 2019. Her love of music, need for affection, and concern for someone who shows it to her contrast with the affectless center of Deckard, the putative human. His decision to spare her marks his development of a personal code, privately glimpsed and at variance with that of his society. They flee to another locale in a closing shot of “light, greenery, and life, rather than the dark, rainy cityscape which has produced them both” (Telotte 29). Their flight to the unpolluted north reminds us that the best of the private eyes, the ones who keep their genre alive, do not have to reform their society, whose corruption is ineradicable. As David Geherin has observed, they win by not succumbing to it—in this case, by rising above it (6).

Rick Deckard's initial inability to love, his failure to integrate motive and act, is related to twentieth century American city literature, whose novels often address similar themes, notably those identified by Blanche Gelfant: man's aloneness and alienation, the collapse of the sense of community and the accompanying breakdown of a sense of tradition, the impact of mechanization, the materialism of modern life, and the conflict between the artist and society (how far should the creators of replicants go?) (21). Scott's film is charged with these thematic energies.

Much of Blade Runner's impact derives from a subtle accumulation of allusive and visual details. Hard-boiled and film noir elements, homages to the mad scientist movie, and futuristic physical settings and moral issues energize the film. Its disordered cityscape is a backdrop for the detective's divided, unfocused sense of self; the addition of science fiction visuals and themes brings new wine to the detective genre's old bottle, again bootlegging new energy for the detective tale.

Blade Runner reverses a thirty-year trend during which detective fiction elements were co-opted by science fiction writers recharging their genre. Typically their detective figures were not romantic, knightly individualists at odds with the code of their society (an exception is Mike McQuay's Matthew Swain, modeled after Philip Marlowe, who carries the “eye” tradition into the twenty-first century).

Significantly, most science fiction detectives are part of their society's law enforcement apparatus—or at least in a cozy consultative relationship. In what many regard as the first hybrid science fiction detective novel, we have a police figure from outer space known as the Hunter. Hal Clement's Needle features a four-pound mass of viral plasm who must infiltrate and enlist the cooperation of a human host. This character gave new meaning to the term private detective. Later came Larry Niven's Gil Hamilton, a future cop who developed an invisible third arm through psychokinesis. Randall Garrett created Lord Darcy, chief royal investigator in a world of magic. Marvin Karlins and Lewis M. Andrews had the aptly named Vic Slaughter work for “the ultimate federal law agency” in the late twentieth century. Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man features an extrasensory police inspector in a telepathic society. Isaac Asimov gave us two investigators—three if we count robots. Wendell Urth is an armchair sleuth invaluable to the police in interplanetary forensics. And in three Asimov novels a robot associate works with detective Elijah Baley.

But Blade Runner, reversing the flow, bootlegs energy from science fiction to revitalize the hard-boiled private eye. In retrospect, the compatibility of detective and science fiction elements in the film seems inevitable. Two years before the release of Blade Runner, Steven R. Carter had identified elements common to both genres: both emphasize the spirit of inquiry, and both kinds of writers have used similar methods to transcend the conditioning and mindsets of their societies. For example, argues Carter, in classic detective novels the puzzle element often challenged readers to go beyond their social assumptions, as in suggesting that servants might also be viewed as suspects. Carter offers cogent examples of mystery writers challenging their readers' racial, social and literary preconceptions: Rudolph Fisher in The Conjure-Man Dies and Agatha Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Curtain. Similarly, observes Carter, science fiction by its nature challenges readers to discard “culturally shaped preconceptions.” Readers must

open their minds to potential advances in technology, radical shifts in social structure, biological and mental evolution in human beings and other creatures, beneficial or destructive changes in earth's ecology. …

(Carter 109-10)

Thus Blade Runner's futuristic setting encourages its viewers to stretch their ethical range, to examine an issue of a future perhaps nearer than we think: the moral emptiness of a society that condones the creation of artificial human beings uncomfortably like humans, but with a technologically predestined life span and no provision for such side effects as human-like desires for longevity and continued association with acquired comrades. And which then enslaves them.

The detective film noir atmosphere of Blade Runner is that of a dark, value-bereft society. Ethical distinctions are as difficult to draw as the line between replicant and human. Simultaneously, Blade Runner's futuristic settings are verisimilitudinous: the central moral issue arises from a projection of contemporary technological trends. The traditional private eye figure, though more isolated than ever before by the zeitgeist of a grimly utilitarian society, is still able to discover a wellspring of empathy and affirm a personal value code.

If we view Deckard as the latest in a series of detective heroes, his anomie at the start of Blade Runner seems to be another manifestation of genre entropy. What happens to a genre hero may be analogous to what happens in a series about one hero: Robin Winks suggests that age brings exhaustion, boredom, and the loss of illusions; growth becomes a matter of becoming more real by being less heroic (42). But the film offers both entertainment and affirmation. The private eye at the center of Blade Runner glimpses a vision of hope and is redeemed through love. We are reminded of what the detective/mystery story has been and can be: “an investigation of character in relation to crime as society defines it” (80).


  1. For this definition and the colloquial paraphrasings in my opening paragraph I am indebted to G. Tyler Miller, Jr.'s Living in the Environment (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1982), pp. 35-6; 38.

Works Cited

Arnheim, Rudolf. Entropy and Art: An Essay on Disorder and Order. Berkeley: U of California, 1971.

Carter, Steven R. “The Science Fiction Mystery Novels of Asimov, Bester, and Lem: Fusions and Foundations,” Clues: A Journal of Detection 1:1 (Spring 1980).

Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1976.

Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder,” Detective Fiction: Crime and Compromise. Dick Allen and David Chacko, eds. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

Geherin, David. Sons of Sam Spade: The Private Eye Novel in the Seventies. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.

Gelfant, Blanche H. The American City Novel. Norman: Oklahoma U., 1970.

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge: Harvard, 1971.

Goulart, Ron. The Hardboiled Dicks. Sherbourne, 1965.

Gregory, Charles. “The Long Good-bye,” Film Quarterly 26:4 (Summer 1973).

Grella, George. “The Formal Detective Novel,” Detective Fiction Robin Winks, ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1980.

Grenier, Richard. Review of Blade Runner,Commentary 74 (August 1982).

Hoppenstand, Gary, and Ray B. Browne, “I'd Kiss You Sweetheart, But My Lips Are Missing,” The Defective Detective in the Pulps. Bowling Green: Popular Press, 1983.

Kael, Pauline. “Movieland—The Bums' Paradise,” New Yorker, 22 October, 1973.

———. “Baby, the Rain Must Fall.” New Yorker, 12 July 1982.

Kennedy, Harlan. Interview with Ridley Scott. Film Comment 18:4 (July-August 1982).

Miller, G. Tyler Jr. Living in the Environment. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1982.

“Passing of the Detective in Literature,” London Academy, 30 December 1905. Reprinted in Art of the Mystery Story, Howard Haycraft, ed. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1976.

Steeves, Harrison R. “A Sober Word on the Detective Story.” Reprinted in Art of the Mystery Story.

Stern, Philip Van Doren. “The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley.” Reprinted in Art of the Mystery Story.

Symons, Julian. Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Harper, 1972.

Telotte, J. P. “Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film,” Film Quarterly 36:3 (Spring 1983).

Winks, Robin. Modus Operandi. Boston: David R. Godine, 1982.

Worpole, Ken. “The American Connection: The Masculine Style in Popular Fiction,” New Left Review No. 139 (May-June 1983).

T. J. Matheson (essay date fall 1992)

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SOURCE: Matheson, T. J. “Triumphant Technology and Minimal Man: The Technological Society, Science Fiction Films, and Ridley Scott's Alien.Extrapolation 33, no. 3 (fall 1992): 215-29.

[In the following essay, Matheson argues that Alien offers a pessimistic vision of man's relationship to modern society in the face of advancing technology.]

When Ridley Scott's film Alien appeared in 1979, critics were generous in their praise of the picture's technical merits but felt that however impressive its machinery might be, the film was less than an artistic or intellectual success. In the main, reviewers agreed with Jeffrey Wells that the film lacked depth and “lean[ed] too heavily on the conventions of horror films from the old days” (436). Typical was Vincent Canby who, writing in the New York Times, saw it as a “rather decent” but “modest” and “extremely small” movie and advised readers not to “race to it expecting the wit [sic!] of Star Wars” (C16: 1).

In scholarly journals, Alien has been examined more seriously, and from a number of perspectives. One article of particular relevance to this study appeared in 1982, when J. P. Telotte observed that pictures such as Alien (1979), The Thing (1982), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and Blade Runner (1982) all contain life forms that serve as foils in that they are capable of duplicating the physical and behavioral characteristics of human beings. In the resulting confrontation with them, the human beings are forced to examine themselves—face what Telotte calls “the difficult task of being human” (44)—and become sensitized in the process to the unique significance of human life. Regarding Alien, Telotte contends that the monster and the robot crewmember Ash together provide the means whereby such an examination can be made. Ash, for example, “a replica of man so perfect that he fools his fellow crewmembers” (46), in his ruthlessness casts into focus the importance of the human values of cooperation and brotherhood evinced by the other crewmembers as the picture unfolds.

Implicit in Telotte's thesis (although not discussed at length in his essay) is the awareness of a distinctly positive element in The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Blade Runner for all the horror therein. Each is based on the assumption that human life is of great significance, even if this significance may be under attack. For example, at the conclusion of Body Snatchers, Dr. Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) encounters his still-human friend (Veronica Cartright). Importantly, his personality has been absorbed by an alien pod, a fact unknown to the audience. Seeing who she believes to be her friend, Cartright smiles in recognition; Bennell utters an inhuman squeak to alert the body snatchers to the presence of an enemy. Realizing that she, as a human, is now utterly alone, Cartright groans in despair, at which point the film ends. The scene does more than simply shock, for by causing us to see how welcome a human cry of recognition would have been to our ears, it forces us to recognize in turn our unique significance as human beings. Essentially the same point is made in The Thing, where the horrifying behavior of characters absorbed by the monster has a similar effect on the audience. Indeed, the final defeat of the men and women in both pictures reinforces our sense of the value of human life by dramatically causing us to see the magnitude of what has been lost. Blade Runner also makes the same point but more optimistically, by concentrating on the emergence of Deckard's humanity as revealed in his eventual decision to leave the Los Angeles of the future with the female replicant Rachael, whom he loves.

Obviously, the above films are fundamentally affirming and positive in their orientation, for they present us with situations where, though men and women may be challenged and even defeated, the belief in their importance is never seriously at issue. Not only do the films' human characters not question the worthiness of the humanity they both represent and defend, the films at no point suggest that there is such a need. Any challenge to the value of humanity in these pictures exists merely in order that the challenge be refuted. The same cannot be said of Alien, which differs from these films in two distinct ways: first, in its presentation of humanity as having lost this crucial sense of its own importance; and secondly, in the way in which this loss is linked to the dominance of the technological milieu. Unlike the other pictures, Alien makes a pessimistic statement about our relationship to modern society. It accomplishes this through its relentless examination of the changes technology has made in the way we perceive ourselves and reaches the conclusion that the estimation of our worth as humans has been dramatically altered for the worse as a consequence of that technology.

Obviously, if the latter element were all that distinguished Alien, there would be little point in drawing attention to it. Many films have portrayed mankind at the mercy of technology. From Fritz Lang's 1926 Metropolis to such classics of the postwar period as This Island Earth (1955), Forbidden Planet (1956), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), technology as an enslaving, destructive, or, at the very least, potentially dangerous element in human life has been a popular theme in science fiction pictures.1 But all such films, however critical they were of technology, nevertheless made the same assumptions that were observed in The Thing,Body Snatchers, and Blade Runner; that is, they took for granted the existence of a human spirit capable both of reacting to the dehumanizing forces and, at times, successfully reestablishing human values in the process. Conservative films such as 2001, not surprisingly, tend to present the flaws and dangers of technology (the damaged and deranged computer Hal) as mere aberrations in an otherwise smoothly functioning system.2 But even in more openly iconoclastic pictures where machine technology is viewed with great suspicion, the assumption of human worthiness still prevails. Though technology itself may be portrayed as responsible for the enslavement of entire societies and worlds (Metropolis,Colossus: The Forbin Project [1969]), or even as behind the destruction of races and planets (Forbidden Planet,This Island Earth), it is also presented either as a misused tool of some evil or misguided human (or otherwise sentient) agency or one that has become dysfunctional. Our ability to make correct decisions may be questioned, but our importance is never denied. Alien goes much further than these films, for it presents a world where the triumph of technology, simply put, is total, to the point where the importance of the human beings, both intrinsically and in relation to their surroundings, is denied, however subtly, at every turn.

As Gary K. Wolfe has observed, it is a generally accepted convention that within much science fiction the spaceship “nearly always fills the role of the vessel of the known”; similarly, “the interior of the ship is an image of the known world” (Clareson 97). If this is so, the world of the Nostromo is indeed a grim reflection of our own, for it is composed entirely of men and women capable of defining themselves only in relation to the technology surrounding them. In Alien there is common agreement among the Company, the ship's computer, the robot, and the crew as well, regarding the peripheral status of the human beings aboard the Nostromo. Here, the perception of human value has been altered to a matter of function alone while the technology that surrounds the crew is perceived as being of primary significance, even though it is demonstrably indifferent to the human needs it was originally created to serve. Exclusively preoccupied with technological concerns, the members of this world question neither the purposes of the mechanisms they operate nor the arbitrariness of their subordinate status in relation to them, or at least not until it is too late to effect meaningful change.

Concern with the effects of technology on human beings is probably as old as technology itself. Thoreau's concern, that “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us,” summarizes well the suspicion that technology may not be the benevolent and liberating force conventional wisdom would have us believe. But in the majority of studies, though such concern continues to be evident, the problems technology poses are generally portrayed as solvable. Pessimistic assessments are usually balanced with the reassuring view that technology can be a potential for good as well as ill.3

As would be expected, a parallel tradition has also existed where the negative effects of technology on mankind have been loudly decried. One of the most representative examples of this approach is Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society. While some would dispute Robert Theobald's claim on the book's dustjacket that the work is “one of the most important books of the second half of the twentieth century,” Ellul's study is arguably “one of the most ambitious and widely read attempts to analyze the relation between technology and modern society” and is certainly “one of the most comprehensive indictments of technology” to appear in our century (Mitcham and Mackey 102-03). Although the book appeared many years before Alien, and while the vision it presents is not unique,4 it is distinguished not only for the breadth of its scope but also for the extent of its pessimism regarding how technology has changed the way we perceive ourselves, a pessimism remarkably similar to that dramatized in Scott's film. The Technological Society paints a frightening picture of a civilization unwittingly enslaved by its commitment to what Ellul calls “technique,” a term that refers not only to the performance capabilities of machine technology (which is only its most obvious manifestation) but that involves as well the assumption that the worth of a thing—be it a machine, an economic system, or a human being—can only be determined with reference to its efficiency. In a world dominated by a preoccupation with technique, such efficiency comes to be regarded as the only criterion considered necessary in determining value. In short, “the ideal for which technique strives is the mechanization of everything it encounters” (12), including, of course, the behavior of human beings.

Today, technique has become “the consciousness of the mechanized world.” Entering “into every area of life, including the human, [becoming] his very substance” (6), it influences even the most inconsequential of our decisions. Virtually inseparable from man, “it progressively absorbs him” to the point where “spontaneous and unreflective behavior [is converted] into behavior that is deliberate and rationalized” in accordance with the mandates imposed upon it by technical requirements (Merton qtd. in Ellul vi). As a result, modern man no longer believes either in the importance of his spiritual life or the value in being able to act freely or spontaneously. Instead, man's “importance” is appreciated as something virtually indistinguishable from his ability to perform tasks efficiently.

As technology grows in sophistication, presenting us with situations of ever-growing technical complexity, our energies become increasingly dedicated to its service. Though we have undeniably “been liberated little by little from physical constraints,” we have become “all the more the slave of abstract ones” (325) such as the notion that our importance is subordinate to the machine, the efficient functioning of which is of primary significance. In a passage particularly relevant to Alien, Ellul cites the example of the crew of an aircraft where the crewmembers need not even discuss the performance of their tasks. Indeed, “it is not [even] necessary for the crew to understand one another in order to run an aircraft. The indicator panel controls the actions to be performed; and every crew member, submitting by necessity and conscience to the automatic indications, obeys for the safety of all” (132). Obviously, in such a situation, the men are still “necessary,” but only as adjuncts to the technological system whose demands and needs are assumed to be of central importance. As such, “the individual's role [becomes] less and less important” in itself, since he merely performs functions demanded of him by the technological mechanism to which he has been assigned. Ultimately, “what seems most disquieting is that the character of technique renders it independent of man himself” to the point where man “no longer possesses any means of bringing action to bear upon technique” (306), technique having developed virtually a life of its own.

The Technological Society is also concerned with the amorality of the present technological age. As Ellul observes, “Technique tolerates no judgment from without” and “need fear no limitation whatever” since it is tacitly assumed by all that “Only technical criteria are relevant” (134). What is frightening about this development is that “the power and autonomy of technique are so well secured that it, in its turn, has become the judge of what is moral, the creator of a new morality” based entirely on a ruthless pragmatism where efficiency of performance is the only yardstick employed and where man's needs are reduced to the point where “the only important human occupation seemed to be to make money” (219).

Ellul repeatedly stresses that the society he is describing is subtly but unmistakably totalitarian, if a totalitarian state is defined as one which “absorb[s] the citizens' life completely” (284). Furthermore, it is in this quality of subtlety where its insidiousness lies. Technique so thoroughly imbues modern civilization that the individual is repressed without his or her knowledge, since a consciousness of repression can only exist when one is able to comprehend one's state in relation to another, for purposes of comparison. In a society “completely oriented in favor of technique,” where “the machine has made itself master of the heart and brain both of the average man and of the mob,” where “the object of the [technical] performance mean[s] little,” and where man's “share of autonomy and individual initiative becomes smaller and smaller,” man “is reduced, in the process, to a near nullity” (302-03), and lives in a state of complete adaptation to the machine, possessing neither knowledge of our reduced status nor our loss of freedom. In this alien milieu he exists, adapting himself “to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock” (325), enclosed as he is “within his artificial creation” (429). The study concludes with an image of a technology that has, in the process of its proliferation, involved “a new dismembering and complete reconstitution of the human being so that he can at last become the objective (and also the total object) of techniques” (431) that exist for and serve themselves alone.

When set against Alien,The Technological Society can be used to elucidate many of the film's major contentions; a surprisingly wide-ranging intertextual relationship exists between film and book. The film begins with the movement across the screen of the huge cargo ship Nostromo, gliding inexorably through space. To a background of unfamiliar, apprehensive music (a far cry from the reassuring Strauss waltzes of 2001), we are introduced to the interior of the craft and move through narrow corridors choked by wires, pipes, screens, and lights. This plethora of technological equipment gives the impression that human movement within these halls would be constricted and difficult at best. Indeed, throughout the picture, we recognize increasingly how this confinement serves to symbolize how restricted the crewmembers' lives are. At no point do they have the ability to move freely; rather, they must move in semi-crouching positions to avoid bumping their heads on the gadget-choked ceilings. It also becomes evident at the outset that virtually no provision has been made for the crew's comfort. With the possible exception of the cramped mess hall, this purely functional environment has not been designed with human contentment in mind. Evidently, the men and women aboard play but a minor role in the successful functioning of the ship. Indeed, until we see a piece of clothing hanging on a rack, it is not even obvious that the ship is presently inhabited. If there are crewmembers, it is evident that they are surrounded, and uncomfortably so, by a ubiquitous technology that represents both the Nostromo and the world they inhabit.

The camera then pauses at two computer terminals, the first of many indications of self-sufficient technological activity in the film. Suddenly, one of the terminals lights up and, at a bewildering speed, scrolls off a list of numbers and other data, apparently intelligible only to the monitor before it. As a result of this exchange of information by purely technological entities, lights come on and the crew is awakened.

It is important to keep in mind that the crewmembers have no grasp of what their true relationship is either to their immediate surroundings, the “Company,” or, for that matter, to the world they inhabit. Lacking the independence that might enable them to realize the extent that they have been used and manipulated, the crew does not appear able to entertain the possibility that the technology they rely on is indifferent to their interests. Indeed, the revelation that the crew is “expendable” is only extracted from the computer late in the film. Even here, the remaining crewmembers not only remain ignorant of the Company's actual purposes, but appear unwilling to accept the full implications of its indifference to their well-being, so unused are they to a critical evaluation of their circumstances.

This uncritical quality is perfectly in keeping with their individual personalities. The robot Ash, appropriately enough, is perhaps the most appropriate defender of the techniques that the Company and its policies employ. Programmed to retrieve the monster at all costs, in his single-minded dedication to this task, he becomes an epitome of Ellul's definition of technological man as having become merely “a device for recording effects and results obtained by various techniques. He does not make a choice of complex and, in some way, human motives. He can decide only in favor of the technique that gives the maximum efficiency” (80). Though nonhuman, in certain respects Ash is nothing more than an exaggerated version of the human crewmembers, distinguishable from them only in degree and not in kind. Indeed, in his single-minded devotion, he has been modeled quite possibly as an “ideal” employee, one that the Company would want its human workers to emulate. Frighteningly enough, the human crewmembers have been similarly “programmed” to serve the Company and implement the policies it stands for, ignorant though they are of the policies themselves. Captain Dallas, for example, believes that “standard procedure is to do what the hell they tell you to do.” Personal morality, human values, and all other considerations are implicitly subordinated in Dallas's defense of his relationship to the technology he serves. Among the other crewmembers, Kane, though clearly the most inquisitive and curious, is, unwittingly, for that very reason, a most obliging tool of the Company (it is he, after all, who descends into the alien nest), thus illustrating Ellul's contention that human characteristics are tolerated only if they serve the demands of technique. Indeed, Kane's fate can be seen as the inevitable result of his uncritical acceptance of the Company's definition of his role together with his willingness to act in such a capacity. Only Ripley gives evidence of possessing qualities that contrast with the materialism of Parker, the technocratic priggishness of Ash, and the cynical acceptance of the system displayed by Dallas. Indeed, one can argue that her retention of a modicum of independent intelligence and humanity is what saves her.

Significantly, after learning they have been wakened to investigate the mysterious beacon, it occurs to no one to question the morality of the “clause in the contract” that forces them to investigate any signal of possibly intelligent origin, regardless, presumably, of the risk to safety involved, which penalizes any refusal to comply with a “total forfeiture of shares.” Later, even though the shuttle experiences technical failure, and although it is obvious the environment of the planet is decidedly hostile, no one suggests beating a hasty retreat back to the Nostromo; though sensitive to the possible dangers involved, they doggedly persist in doing the Company's will. As they move toward the source of the beacon, Lambert's repeated complaint that she “can't see a Goddamned thing” is particularly apt in light of what will soon befall them as a consequence of their shortsightedness.

Much has been made of the peculiar, leg-like appearance of the alien space craft and of the womb-like chamber where the eggs are located (Creed 44-70). As the expeditionary group moves through the curiously ribbed walls of the alien craft's passageways, it is evident that some kind of marriage of technology with organic life has already taken place on the alien ship. That this marriage has been at the expense of the organic is further indicated in the crew's encounter with the alien being, appropriately fossilized (i.e., reduced to something nonorganic). Sitting in a metallic, military-looking device vaguely reminiscent of an open turret, before its death it appears to have been monitoring a gun or instrument (perhaps the beacon-sending device). Literally coffined by a technology that was unable to protect it, the being becomes a mute prophet of what is in store for the crew of the Nostromo.

For that matter, there are many reminders of the limits of technology's usefulness on board the Nostromo, although the crew remains oblivious to their import. More often than not, the technological devices the crew must rely on rarely perform as they are ostensibly designed to do: the shuttle experiences technical difficulties upon landing; the translating device only determines that the message is a warning after it is too late to retrieve Kane and the others; the television gives Ash a less-than-clear picture of what is going on outside the ship; Ash's instruments do not tell him “what” the alien lifeform is, or the purpose for which Kane is being used; the sensing device used to track the Alien mistakes the cat for the monster; the electrical guns and other instruments brought forth to destroy the alien are singularly ineffective; equipment mysteriously breaks down or malfunctions for no apparent reason; and so on. Obviously, the inability of these devices to perform satisfactorily suggests, in pointing to a failure of technology generally, that the god being worshipped is a false one indeed. But its inadequacies do not merely highlight how misguided the crew's reliance on it is. Their dependence on technology has also been at the expense of self-reliance and common sense, both qualities apparently having atrophied through disuse. Original decision making seems to be discouraged everywhere. For example, in the argument between Ripley and Dallas over whether or not to admit Kane to the ship, Ripley obviously believes that she can only defend her refusal to admit them on the basis of procedure alone and must invoke Company rules to justify her position. Later, Ash only agrees to try removing the organism from Kane's face after Dallas offers to “accept the responsibility.” For that matter, Ash defends his own violation of procedure with reference to the same terminology by claiming to “take [his] responsibilities [to the Company] as seriously as [she] do[es]” hers. Common sense as well has taken a back seat to the demands of the Nostromo. After the Alien has dropped off Kane's face, despite what the crew knows about its real danger to them, only Ripley resists Ash's desire to study it. When Ripley questions Dallas's acquiescence to Ash in this regard, Dallas hides again behind procedure and cynically replies that “it happens, my dear, because that's what the Company wants to happen.”

There are also many reminders that the world of the Nostromo has lost many of its links with a traditional humanistic environment where free expression through culture, art, or even sexuality is possible. Dallas listening to Mozart in his quarters (even there surrounded by machinery), Parker bantering with Brett or other crewmembers, Ripley petting the cat, or the crew eating unappetizing-looking dinner—these are virtually the only instances of human activity that have not been determined by the demands of the technological society. Indeed, following Kane's death, at the “funeral” no one seems able to speak in reply to Dallas's question, “Anybody want to say anything?” Kane is then ejected unceremoniously from the Nostromo and is last seen tumbling into deep space, contemptuously dispensed with as he is no longer capable of servicing the technology that alone gave his existence meaning. Though the crew members are obviously shaken by Kane's death, they nevertheless unwittingly participate in the process of his summary expulsion, and conceal any emotional reaction they might have as well.

As the crew's efforts to destroy the Alien are redoubled, more is made of the claustrophobic, confining environment surrounding them as they move awkwardly through the ship. The next attempt to trap the monster takes place in the cramped air ducts, where its uncanny ability to defy the sensing and tracking equipment points again to the ultimate limitations of technology and suggests as well that there are spheres of power and self-sufficiency plainly beyond our attainment, let alone our control, if not also beyond our comprehension.

Following Dallas's death, the crew's heated quarrel over how they can best proceed indicates a growing, if unvoiced, disillusionment with the tools and support systems of the Nostromo, tools they have never before been called upon to question. But even at this late point they are unwilling to respond to their situations in a truly radical manner. Lambert's suggestion that they abandon ship, though admittedly ill-conceived (there is insufficient room on the shuttle), is summarily dismissed by the now-senior officer Ripley. Still, unthinkable is the possibility that their well-being has a right to take precedence over the Company and the technological world it epitomizes. In an angry exchange with Ash, Ripley tells him, “I've got access to Mother [the computer] now, and I'll get my own answers, thank you.” Her implicit belief that satisfactory answers could be forthcoming suggests a continuing assumption that the technology surrounding them is still ultimately beneficent and designed for them. Indeed, it is only during Ash's interrogation (following his decapitation) that Parker sees that the “damned” Company has treated them as expendable and, what is more, has always done so.

Finally able to communicate with the computer, Ripley learns that the true purpose of the mission was to “Investigate life form. Gather specimen. Priority one. Insure return of organism for analysis. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.” The computer's statement is a frightening admission that the value system of Ripley's world is determined entirely by the search for maximum efficiency. It recalls Ellul's claim that in the world where technique reigns, “advance for its own sake becomes proportionately greater and the expression of human autonomy [together with the belief in human worth] proportionately feebler” (92). It also contains echoes of one of Ellul's most poignant warnings regarding the destructive potential of technique:

“every intervention of technique” reduces “facts, forces, phenomena, means, and instruments to the schema of logic” alone as a consequence of which technique “destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural [i.e., human] world, and does not allow this world to restore itself or even to enter into a symbiotic relation with it.”


Instead, “the technical milieu absorbs the natural” (79). If we see the crew as representing the “natural” world, it is easy to see the conclusion of Alien as a most telling extrapolation in cinema of the essential contentions in Ellul's book.

As Ripley sits in stunned silence pondering the implications of what she has just learned, we suddenly realize that Ash has been able to enter the computer room. Observing that “There is an explanation for this, you know,” his complacent assumption that the treatment of human beings in this way could be explained is a most revealing comment on society's values. Appropriately, it is here we discover his nonhuman nature: Ripley's bleeding nose contrasts vividly with the white substance dripping from Ash's forehead. In the ensuing, symbolically charged scene, Ripley is manhandled by the obviously more powerful embodiment of the technological society, inexorably bent on destroying anything that might impede its purposes, whatever those might be.

Regarding these purposes, the computer's revelation raises more questions than it answers. Ripley speculates that the Company “must have wanted the Alien for the weapons division,” but the precise purpose of the entire exercise is never made clear.5 One possible explanation is suggested by Ash, for whom the monster is a “perfect organism” whose “structural perfection” is “matched only by its hostility.” Understandably, as the spokesman for the Company and technological society, Ash admires the Alien precisely as we would expect him to, because it is “unclouded by a conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” The Company's desire to obtain such a specimen may not be the product so much of a Faustian drive, but rather an expression of technique's search for maximum efficiency. As for the monster itself, its appearance—another strange blend of the organic with the artificial—together with its behavior suggests it exists in the film as a symbolic embodiment of the absolute negation of humane values implicit in a totally “perfected” technological society. Ash, it will be recalled, admired the “purity” of its technique.

Disillusioned at last, Ripley now decides to destroy the ship. Parker and Lambert race frantically to gather supplies while Ripley activates the Nostromo's self-destruct mechanism, the very presence of such a mechanism hinting again of the inherently destructive nature of rampant technology. At this point, Ripley inexplicably interrupts her preparations of the shuttle craft to retrieve the ship's cat, which she hears crying over the intercom. While it would be easy to dismiss this as a gratuitous injection of sentimentality in the film, such an interpretation overlooks that although her search for the cat is ill-considered, it is also uniquely human for that very reason. As such, it represents the resurfacing in Ripley of a humanity that the film implies can emerge only after circumstances have forced her to question her allegiance to the Company.

The scene continues to shift rapidly back and forth between Ripley's searching for the cat and the doomed Parker and Lambert who are destroyed in the act of gathering material (coolant) in the service of yet another machine in which they must put their trust. On her way to the shuttle, Ripley encounters the Alien in her path and, realizing she cannot escape, races back to stop the automatic destruct process she has initiated. Missing the deadline by a mere second, Ripley screams in frustration to an oblivious “Mother,” calling the computer a “bitch” when it does not respond to her verbal demand that the destruct process be halted. Her use of that term together with her obvious sense of betrayal indicate how thoroughly she had been misled into assuming that a supposedly perfected technology would have a “human” side.

Ripley's discovery of the Alien aboard the shuttle precipitates the dramatic, surprising conclusion of Alien. A cursory analysis suggests an optimistic interpretation, for Ripley's application of human ingenuity would seem to augur a final, eleventh-hour triumph of the human spirit. But closer inspection suggests deeply ironic implications in the film's ending. For one thing, luck plays a major role in Ripley's triumph. Ripley herself repeats the word “lucky” as she depressurizes the craft and only opens the shaft in the nick of time. But more importantly, although this particular monster may have been removed, the larger and even more insidious monster that essentially spawned it—the amoral Company, epitome of the technological society—is still very much alive, is still the dominant force both in Ripley's world and in her thoughts. Nothing essentially has been changed at the ending of the film. Though a specific battle may have been won, it has been a Pyrrhic victory at best, given the loss of life. Moreover, nothing has happened to effect a change in the values of this society that might indicate such mistakes will not be made again: no lessons have been learned, and no understanding of why the destruction took place has been achieved. The motives of the Company are still mysterious and will remain so; furthermore, there is no evidence that it will undergo a change of heart regarding the way it treats its employees.

Nor does it appear even that Ripley has learned much from her experiences. The film ends with her once again following proper procedure, dutifully recording events into her logbook, and, in the process, exemplifying Ellul's dismal prediction that “in the future, man will apparently be confined to the role of a recording device; he will note the effects of techniques upon one another, and register the results” (93).

In his conclusion, Ellul speaks of man's having been imprisoned totally by the technological milieu that has evolved: “Enclosed within his artificial creation, man finds that there is ‘no exit’; that he cannot pierce the shell of technology to find again the ancient milieu to which he was adapted for hundreds of thousands of years” (429). This, of course, is precisely where we leave Ripley: both surrounded by and dependent upon the very technology that nearly destroyed her and was earlier unable to save her. Titling her report the “final report of the commercial starship Nostromo,” her choice of words implicitly subordinates her own importance as human recorder to that of the ship, as does her inclusion of the robot Ash among the list of human dead, which suggests a continuing confusion on her part regarding man's status in the scheme of things. Most ironic, of course, is her comment that “with a little luck the Network will pick me up,” as if being “picked up” could even constitute a genuine rescue from the very forces that almost destroyed her. For as Ripley reenters hypersleep, she once again puts her faith in a technology that has surely lost all credibility. Given this, we cannot help but wonder what lies in wait for this lone survivor of the Nostromo upon her return, other than a reentry to the very environment that regarded her as expendable. One can argue that Ripley has won a minor, personal victory of sorts, but, as Ellul observes, what victory can ever have been gained when it has been secured “at the price of an even greater subjection to the forces of … the technical society which has come to dominate our lives” (428-29). Ripley's need to submit once again to technology if she is to survive, combines with our knowledge that her ingenuity will hardly be rewarded upon her return (after all, she destroyed the Nostromo) to make an optimistic interpretation of Alien virtually impossible. Indeed, the full pessimism of Scott's film emerges when we reflect that the Company would have been happier to see the Alien aboard the shuttle than Ripley herself.

Alien, then, can be regarded as an extensive delineation in cinema of the major concerns encountered in The Technological Society. Both works contain telling analyses of the degree to which technology has undermined man's belief in the importance of his humanity. In doing so, they also remind us of how essential that belief is to the preservation of our values and illustrate with devastating effectiveness—the one philosophically, the other dramatically—how meaningless human life can become when such a belief has been lost.


  1. Of course, science fiction films are just as apt to portray technology from a positive, if not also naive, perspective. From the numerous Japanese and American monster movies to more serious pictures such as When Worlds Collide (1951) and The Andromeda Strain (1971), technology is presented as a savior to man. Although such sunny presentations are less frequent today, the recent Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), with its basically benevolent picture of technology (after all, we are only able to communicate with the aliens through a musical computer!), shows that the optimistic approach is far from obsolete, however discredited it may appear to some.

  2. This is even less surprising when one examines other work by the Odyssey's author, Arthur C. Clarke, such as Childhood's End. For an interesting analysis of this novel, see Thomas L. Wymer (Clareson 1-13).

  3. Even in collections of studies on the treatment of technology in science fiction, one finds only a cursory examination of this aspect of the problem. See, for example, Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF, where the treatment of “human beings as pieces of the machine that can be placed or recast at will to fit the general purposes of society” (7) is discussed only in passing. Even a special issue of Alternative Futures devoted to “Technology and Pessimism” tended to conclude that mere pessimism was, on the whole, “immature and unwarranted” (Florman 19-30).

  4. Robert Howard's recent Brave New Workplace (1985) discusses the effects of technology on our contemporary, computer-dominated society and corroborates many of the conclusions reached by Ellul. Howard also paints a picture of technology dangerously out of control with man “becoming a mere appendage of the machine” (3-4). The most dramatic corroboration of Ellul is seen in Howard's contention that the loss of meaning experienced by today's worker is the direct result of companies having “remade individuals in the image and likeness of the machine” (95).

  5. On this point, it would not seem as if Ripley's explanation can be given much weight. How, after all, could the Alien ever be controlled? Telotte believes that the search for the Alien represents a pure “faustian drive for knowledge” that is behind much of the film. Still, that there may be no explanation—or at least no rational one—may be the ultimate point.

Works Cited

Andrews, Nigel, and Harlan Kennedy. “Space Gothic.” American Film 4 (1979): 17-22.

Canby, Vincent. “Screen: Alien Brings Chills from the Far Galaxy.” New York Times, May 25, 1979.

Clareson, Thomas D., ed. Many Futures, Many Worlds: Theme and Form in Science Fiction. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1977.

Creed, Barbara. “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” Screen 1 (1986): 44-70.

Dempsey, Michael. “Blade Runner.Film Quarterly 36 (1982-83): 34.

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. New York: Vintage, 1964.

Erlich, Richard D., and Thomas P. Dunn. Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF. Westport: Greenwood, 1983.

Figenshu, Tom. Film Comment 15 (1979): 49-53.

Florman, Samuel C. “Technology and the Tragic View.” Alternative Futures: The Journal of Utopian Studies 3 (1980): 19-30.

Hardy, Phil. Science Fiction. New York: William Morrow, 1984.

Howard, Robert. Brave New Workplace. New York: Viking, 1985.

Lee, Clayton. “Cognitive Approaches to Alien,” from “Symposium on Alien.Science Fiction Studies 7 (1980): 278-304.

Mitcham, Carl, and Robert Mackey. “Jacques Ellul and the Technological Society.” Philosophy Today 15 (1971): 93-108.

Nash, Jay Robert, and Stanley Ralph. The Motion Picture Guide. Chicago: Cinebooks, 1985.

Pohl, Frederik, and Frederik Pohl IV. Science Fiction Studies in Film. New York: Ace, 1981.

Spinks, C. W. “Motifs in Science Fiction as Archetypes of Science.” Extrapolation 27 (Summer 1986): 93-108.

Telotte, J. P. “Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film.” Film Quarterly 36 (1983): 44-51.

Wells, Jeffrey, Films in Review 30 (1979): 436.

Peter Wollen (review date November 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2728

SOURCE: Wollen, Peter. “Cinema's Conquistadors.” Sight and Sound 2, no. 7 (November 1992): 21-3.

[In the following review, Wollen characterizes 1492: Conquest of Paradise as a re-evaluation of the myth of Christopher Columbus, portraying Columbus as a visionary maverick and national hero.]

Ridley Scott's film about Columbus, 1492: Conquest of Paradise revolves around the first sight of land after the long voyage. The screen is covered in clouds, which drift slowly away, like gauze curtains, to reveal a lush green tropical landscape, filled with trees, foliage and plants. Later in the film, Columbus recalls this image as one that will stay with him in all its vividness until his death. It is an aesthetic image, one designed to appeal to our delight in seeing. It is also an image with connotations of unspoiled nature, awakening in the viewer a presentiment of the destruction of the Amazon rain forest or the North American redwoods. It is an image which is certainly true to Columbus' own experience—his diary is full of expressions of wonder at the proliferation and verdancy of trees on the Caribbean islands. On the other hand, when he saw pine trees, which could be used for shipbuilding, he immediately switched into a different register, that of practicality and exploitation.

Although the curtain has drawn back to reveal the first image of America, we are aware that this image too is like a curtain. Having contemplated, Columbus is fated to land, to rip apart the curtain and to penetrate the interior in search of gold and slaves and sites for forts and towns. From the start there is a tension between the aesthete and the conquistador. Moreover, we are aware that this gaze will be returned by the native inhabitants. What will they see? At the time, they thought they saw extra-terrestrials, men who came from the skies, as the Spaniards noted. But they soon learned to see these men from the skies in a more terrestrial light.

In his classic article, ‘The Western: or the American film par excellence’, André Bazin attributed the power of the Western, and by extension of Hollywood cinema itself, to its epic grandeur and historic roots. Westerns reminded him of Corneille's Le Cid or the Homeric classics—“The migration to the West is our Odyssey”. At the heart of Hollywood cinema lay the myth of the West, the evocation of a world in which “knights of the true cause” were set against the forces of evil and “pagan savagery” represented by the Indian. “The white Christian on the contrary is truly the conqueror of a new world. The grass sprouts where his horse has passed. He imposes his moral and technical order, the one linked to the other and the former guaranteeing the latter … Only strong, rough and courageous men could tame these virgin lands”.

Two years later, in 1955, Eric Rohmer developed Bazin's ideas even more radically. In an essay in Cahiers du cinéma, ‘Rediscovering America’, he argued that the classical elegance and efficacy of the American cinema came precisely from the historic role of the Americans as a colonising people like the Ancient Greeks, that there was a clear parallel “between the first colonisers of the Mediterranean and the pioneers of Arizona”. Typical American heroes are members of “a race of conquerors, which opens up the land, founds cities, is in love with action and adventure, and in spite of or perhaps because of this is more determined to preserve its religious or moral tradition”. Thus, like their Greek predecessors, Hollywood film heroes are preoccupied not simply with action and conquest, but with the underlying problems of destiny, violence, morality and law.

Neither Bazin nor Rohmer was much concerned with the historical record. They were concerned with the creation of a new form of ‘myth’. The concept of ‘myth’, of course, gave some credibility to their neo-classical interpretation of Hollywood. Yet in effect, they were talking about what E. J. Hobsbawm has called “the invention of tradition”.

During the nineteenth century, the major powers of Europe and North America set about inventing an array of ancient traditions to support the official nationalism they promoted. Nationalism depends crucially on the creation of an invented national history, with its monumental heroes, dramatic climaxes, narrative goals. The myth of the West—the ever-expanding frontier, the manifest destiny that underlay America's westward dynamic, the civilising mission of the settlers, the taming of the wilderness, the appropriation of the land in order for it to be cultivated—stands alongside other national myths that justified the unification of Germany, or the expansion of Tsarist Russia to the Pacific, or the scramble for Africa, or the imposition of the British raj in India.

Christopher Columbus is just such a monumental hero. As the historic initiator of the cycle of conquest, plunder and colonisation which was still playing itself out four centuries later in the American West, he plays a more crucial mythic role than even the heroes of the West themselves. To pursue the classical analogy, Columbus was the Theseus who founded Athens or the Aeneas who left Carthage to found Rome. Columbus was the originator without whom the national narrative could not have taken place and who inevitably symbolised the destiny which validated it. Along with Washington and Lincoln, he was an indispensable lynchpin of the invented tradition that America produced within and for itself. Columbus was the first adventurer, the first immigrant, the first prospector, the first pacifier of savages, the first missionary to the heathen, the first law-maker, the first town-builder, the first merchant and entrepreneur, the first slave-taker, the first modern American.

The Columbus myth evolved in three successive periods, reaching a peak every hundred years, at the time of the centennial celebrations. The first significant stirrings of the cult were felt with the advent of American Independence, as the new nation began to construct its new identity and history. Patriotic anthems celebrated the rise of ‘Columbia’; poets wrote book-length epics chronicling the exploits of “the new Moses”; King's College in New York was renamed Columbia University; the new national capital, still unbuilt, was assigned its place in the new District of Columbia; and the anniversary of 1792 was marked with dinners, toasts and fervid orations. The capstone was put in place in due course, when Washington Irving wrote the decisive popular biography of Columbus, published in three volumes in 1828, in the immediate aftermath of Walter Scott's great romantic project of history creation. This first-wave Columbus was both a romantic genius and an embattled underdog, harried by flat-earthers and envious hidalgos, betrayed by perfidious royalty.

The second wave, which began with the expansion west and was given new impetus by Italian immigration into America, brought Columbus Day and Columbus Circle and culminated in the lavish celebrations of 1892, foremost among which was the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a commemoration so ambitious that it finally opened in 1893. At the exposition, Kwakiutl and Haida people from British Columbia performed in their painted cedar houses, complete with thunderbirds and totem poles, along with an Apache craftsman, a Navajo family in a hogan, four families of Penobscots in birch-bark wigwams, and Iroquois in a traditional bark house. Most significant of all was the presence of Arawaks from British Guiana in a thatched hut. Presumably these were the best available stand-ins for the Arawak-speaking Taino who were encountered by Columbus on the Caribbean beach that fateful day in 1492. The Taino, who once numbered millions, had vanished from the earth within a few decades of Columbus' arrival, destroyed by forced labour, famine, slavery, slaughter and disease.

This was also the period in which Buffalo Bill was at the peak of his success and in which American Indians first entered show business as performers. The whooping and circling warriors of the Wild West show, ritually defeated and massacred by the white conquerors, were soon to transmute into the whooping and circling extras and stuntmen of the Hollywood Western. The Western, in turn, gave America two great twentieth-century masters of the invention of tradition in Cecil B. DeMille and, of course, John Ford. Andrew Sarris, in the record of his own voyage of discovery, The American Cinema, describes DeMille as the last Victorian, while Ford is cast as a director flexible enough to avoid becoming faded and dated. Today Ford's reputation has crystallised around The Searchers (1956), the darkest of his films, which, in its desperation, hovers on the edge of a renunciation of the very tradition Ford had dedicated himself to inventing.

Finally, a third wave of re-examination of Columbus has arrived with 1992. This time there is no grandiose official celebration, even if a life-size replica of the Santa Maria is tethered to the river bank in front of the State Capitol in Columbus, Ohio, not far from the life-size topiary reconstruction of Seurat's La Grande Jatte, which adorns a nearby park. Even this small gesture seems ironic when we remember that the original Santa Maria went aground on a reef while Columbus was asleep and that, after the timber and nails were ferried ashore in canoes by friendly Taino, it was cannibalised to build the first fort in the New World. The reticence of 1992 reflects, however, not a diminution of Columbus' mythic role, but a re-evaluation. Columbus as bearer of civilisation is gradually exchanging roles with the Taino; he is becoming the savage, while they become the civilised, living in harmony with nature and at peace with each other.

It is into this third-wave treatment of Columbus that Ridley Scott's film uneasily fits. The subtitle, Conquest of Paradise, follows the lead of Kirkpatrick Sale's major revisionist book on Columbus, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, published in 1990. Sale was a founder of the New York Green Party, and his exactingly researched work arraigns Columbus for his deeds and his legacy, drawing a clear connection between Columbus' own fanaticism, and the pollution, plunder, massacre and destruction that followed in his wake. The Taino, in contrast, are presented as pacific, respectful of their environment and balanced in their economic practices. At the same time, Columbus is placed within an historical context that sees his arrival in the Americas as an epochal moment of culture clash, in which Columbus, as protagonist, is little more than the representative of already tainted European values.

In fact, as Tzvetan Todorov notes, there was something “Quixotic” about Columbus. His ideas and theories were often completely crazy and wildly inaccurate and, although he changed the course of history, he was dogged by fiasco and failure—he ran his ship aground, he abandoned his crew, his chief lieutenants repeatedly mutinied, he found hardly any gold worth speaking of, he was quite unable to find any spices, his settlements failed, and he was finally dragged back to Spain in chains and, in his view, cheated of the honours and rewards he deserved. In many ways, he turned out to be the Admiral of the Mosquitoes that his detractors dubbed him. Like others of his kind, he appears hopelessly simple-minded in his encounter with the unknown, sticking with irremediable stubbornness to his preconceptions and wrong guesses. Despite his amazing adventures, he was not an interesting person and his diaries are exasperatingly tedious and uninformative. As 1492 notes, neither he nor anyone around him learned to speak Arawak or understood anything much of who his interlocutors were. At first, he mainly wanted them to point him towards gold, and later simply to bring it to him as a tribute. He could be indulgent while things were going well, but turned cruel at the scent of trouble.

The film of 1492 is only incidentally dependent for its effect on the exposition of Columbus' historic role—which might have required either a Brechtian approach alien to mainstream cinema or a voiceover of the kind forced on Ridley Scott with Blade Runner (1982) and then removed in the newly released director's cut. Essentially, 1492 is a traditional bio-pic, and like all good genre films, it follows the well-tried conventions, elaborated over the years in 300 or so Hollywood movies. As George F. Custen observes in his newly published study, Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History, the bio-pic occupies a particular niche within the invention of tradition, one which codes public events according to a pattern of individual success through triumph over adversity. The hero, according to this pattern, has an innovative and visionary scheme which necessarily disturbs entrenched interests and conservative ways of thinking. Eventually, with help from family and friends, the hero's project is realised and his or her achievements enter the public domain, where he/she survives counter-attack or betrayal before being vindicated.

Darryl Zanuck recognised the essential dynamic of the story in a letter he despatched to the author of The Story of Alexander Graham Bell in 1938: “The drama of the story does not lie in the invention of the telephone any more than the drama of Zola's life was his writing. Our main drama lies in Bell's fight against the world to convince them he had something great, and then to protect his ownership”. Thus in Ridley Scott's 1492, the drama of Columbus' life lies not in his epochal voyage to America, or even in his landfall on an island of the Bahamas or his meeting with the Taino, but in his efforts to get his scheme off the ground by debating with dogmatic clerics at the University of Salamanca, pulling strings to reach Queen Isabella, winning her over by his straightforward and immodest ways (a soupçon here of the secret love affair between them imagined by the Cuban novelist, Alejo Carpentier, in his The Harp and the Shadow). And then, after the voyage, there is his struggle to hold on to his power, his reputation and the public recognition of his achievement.

In fact, as Custen notes, this model closely resembles the struggles of a filmmaker to get a project realised, although in the case of 1492, the protagonist is a director rather than a producer. Towards the end of the film, Columbus is confronted by his aristocratic patron and told he is nothing but a dreamer. “I did it!”, he retorts. “You didn't”. This is the traditional cry of the director against the producer and the critic. The director is easily conceived of as a hero with a vision who finds it difficult to get funded, difficult to execute his or her dream and difficult to control the final product after it is finished. Indeed, in a way, this is the story of Blade Runner: the story of an adventure, a voyage, carried out by a perfectionist, a tough captain, even a slave-driver, whose work is distrusted and sabotaged and taken from him, before the original, director's version is finally and triumphantly released. In this sense, 1492 falls into the tradition of The Barefoot Contessa or The Big Knife or even The Player—history refracted into Hollywood on Hollywood.

Within this basic bio-pic framework, 1492 attempts to mellow the biographical record by presenting Columbus as something of an egalitarian, an appreciator of Indian ways, an admirer of nature and a victim of reactionary churchmen and vicious hidalgos whose penchant for violence wrecks the idyll of his newly conquered Paradise and turns the New World into catastrophe: a vision not unlike that of Dances with Wolves, the set-piece revisionist Western. It would have been easier had the film been unabashedly fictional, like a Western. Again, Zanuck fearlessly pointed the way, in a message wired to a replacement writer six months later, after difficulties had been created by Bell's family: “Appreciate difficulties and am relying on you and Lamar [Trotti] to settle same without destroying story because rather than destroy present dramatic structure I would be willing to forget name of Bell and other real names and make same plot with fictional names stop They must realize that from time immemorial there has existed dramatic license which was practised when I made Disraeli House of Rothschild Lloyds of London Suez and when Warners made Pasteur and Zola stop”. This telegram brusquely encapsulates the Hollywood view of history, ruthlessly prepared to subordinate the shadowy events of the real world to the hard facts of Hollywood and its own “time immemorial”. Ridley Scott's film remains a compromise formation, caught between the revisionist history of a Green intellectual like Kirkpatrick Sale and the truly Columbian vision of a conquistador like Darryl Zanuck.

Philip Strick (review date November 1992)

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SOURCE: Strick, Philip. Review of 1492: Conquest of Paradise, by Ridley Scott. Sight and Sound 2, no. 7 (November 1992): 41-2.

[In the following review, Strick comments that, despite a dull and plodding narrative, the cinematography, soundtrack, set design, and costumes in 1492: Conquest of Paradise are impressive and skillfully constructed.]

[In Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise,] Fernando, son of Christopher Columbus, recalls how his father proved to him that the Earth is round. Convinced on this basis that the riches of the Orient could be reached by sailing West from the Canary Islands, Columbus then sought Church support for his proposed voyage of exploration. Assisted by the priest Marchena, he is interrogated by clergy at the University of Salamanca in 1491, where he comes to the attention of Sanchez, adviser to Queen Isabel. The Church refuses approval until, backed by a seasoned mariner, Pinzón, and an influential banker, Santangel, Columbus gains fresh access to Sanchez, and through him the queen. Victorious over the Moors at Granada in 1492, Isabel is intrigued by Columbus' idealism and promises of further glory, and the royal consent is given. On August 3, 1492, after confessing to Marchena that he has no idea how long the voyage will take, Columbus sets sail with three ships, the Pinta, the Niña and the Santa Maria.

His two captains, Pinzón and Mendez, grow increasingly concerned as weeks go by and their crews become restless. Eloquently dissuading his men from mutiny, Columbus is saved from being forced to turn back by the sighting of land. He leads the expedition ashore on October 12 at Guanahani Island, which he claims as Spanish territory under the name San Salvador. The Taino natives soon make the sailors welcome; charmed by the tribe's simple way of life, Columbus keeps his men firmly in check and trains an interpreter, Utapan. But after two months, during which snakebites and other hazards take their toll, there is little sign of the hoped-for treasure trove. Leaving behind a settlement of 39 men, Columbus sails back to Spain for fresh resources; the mortally sick Pinzón dies soon after their return.

Receiving a hero's welcome, Columbus finds Isabel and Ferdinand delighted at his achievement and happy to sanction a second, larger expedition. Less impressed, Sanchez tries to add one of his own team, Bobadilla, as observer; instead, Columbus recruits his own brothers as reluctant assistants. In November 1493, he returns to the West Indies, only to find the settlement at San Salvador in ruins, the natives claiming that warriors from another tribe killed his men. This prompts a call for revenge from Moxica, a hot-headed Spanish nobleman, but Columbus insists that there will be no violence. On the island of Hispaniola, he begins to construct the first city of the ‘New World’, marked by the raising of a giant church bell in 1494.

Supervising a gold-mining project, Moxica punishes a native for supposed theft by chopping off his hand. Columbus immediately arrests the nobleman, but the natives rise against their oppressors, and Columbus has to fight for his life. Just as order is restored, he is ambushed by Moxica and a small army of rebels; more bloodshed follows until Moxica is killed and his men executed. Adding to the confusion, tropical storms reduce the city to ruins. When news of his treatment of the nobleman, and of his other failures, reaches Spain, Columbus is replaced by Bobadilla as Viceroy of the Indies in November 1500. He is imprisoned as news comes that another explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, is being celebrated for having found the mainland Columbus was searching for. Rescued from disgrace by the queen, who gives permission—despite the continuing opposition of Sanchez—for him to undertake yet another voyage, the weary explorer is encouraged by his son Fernando to dictate the memoirs that will restore his reputation.

Given the uncertainty among historians over what precisely drove Columbus, an infrequent diarist, to sink slowly into the West, it was only to be expected that Ridley Scott's version of his adventures, like the rival account from John Glen, would stir up an uneasy alchemical potion of fact and fantasy in the hope of finding gold. As if alerted to the casting of Marlon Brando by the Salkinds, Scott's film omits Torquemada altogether—a bold stroke, given his notorious influence on the Spanish throne—while emphasising the macabre grip of the Church not only by a lurid scene of heretic execution but also by repeated panoramas of cathedral glory.

Infested with clergy whose pious inertia constantly perplexes him, Scott's Columbus is finally betrayed by the priest who flees from his duties in the New World in order to cluck protestingly to the Old. Despite this, the adventurer is never offered to us as a cynic: he meekly accepts the punishment of a night of penance on a chapel floor after losing his temper, he demands Absolution before setting sail, he prays gratefully at landfall, and his first action in creating a new city is to cast and raise the church bell.

When, later, the bell tower is struck by lightning, and a ferocious storm concludes with the image of a burning cross, the hint of Divine anger (or profane dismissal) is left to us to consider, as Columbus makes no reference to it. We might guess that for him, paradoxically, the bell project signalled his ‘conversion’ to a new faith, based on his admiration for—and envy of—the imperturbable simplicity of the island tribes. “Nature is their God”, he explains, watching his words with necessary caution when the queen enquires about the persuasion of the heathens; the queen, we may recall, also celebrated 1492 by driving out both the Moors and the Jews (and Columbus may have been a converted Jew), so the ‘innocence’ of the natives was a sensitive concern.

Innocence lost not so much because of the Serpent (whose only screen victim is Spanish) as through an invasion of Satanic malevolence and greed, the New World begins to disintegrate as Columbus finds himself in a frenzy of killing, forced to restage the executions he formerly despised. “Paradise and Hell”, he observes, a daring thought for the time, “can be earthly—we carry them with us wherever we go”. What he has also carried, unavoidably but fatally (like a sickness which, incidentally, the film only shows as afflicting the Europeans, never the natives), is an inflexible arrogance which enables him to address royalty as his equals and to remain convinced, to the end of his days, that he had reached the oceanic edge of Asia. That the Church then hails Amerigo Vespucci, not him, merely reconfirms its habitual treachery, and he accepts the blow without comment.

He has already recognised his failure—at the moment when his interpreter, Utapan, at last abandons him. “You never learned how to speak my language”, says the Native American, and slips back into the forest like a ghost. Entrusted to carry the word of God and Spain, Scott's Columbus proves equally non-committal on matters of plunder, his hidden but most vital agenda. Something of an anti-materialist in the course of his wanderings, he relieves the island tribes of a fair amount of jewelry, sanctions a gold-mining operation, and writes sadly home that he has found nothing to match Marco Polo's descriptions of opulence. The natives comment wryly on the Spanish interest in women and gold, but if this Columbus has anything more than the equivalent to a filmmaker's interest in protecting the investment of his financiers, he keeps it firmly concealed.

Asked by his son, finally, what he remembers of his first voyage, Columbus cites the wild surmise of the moment when the New World emerges from the mists (as well he may, given Scott's coup de théâtre at this point). Asked by the queen why he should be allowed on yet another voyage, he begs to be able to explore the land of his dreams before he dies. Challenged by Sanchez (Scott's devious substitute for history's—and Mario Puzo's—King Ferdinand, otherwise glimpsed in morose silence) to justify his pursuit of New World attractions when the spires of Spanish civilisation already “reach the sky”, the navigator smartly sums up the long-term enmity between them: “I did it. You didn't”.

If Ridley Scott's Columbus, fully substantiated by Gérard Depardieu, is to be really understood, the clues, not too surprisingly, are to be traced among his predecessors, those who ‘did it’ and confounded their opponents. Among these wanderers are the obsessive swordsmen of The Duellists, the space-travelled replicants of Blade Runner, the careless fugitives of Thelma & Louise. Speaking for them all, Columbus identifies “an unexplored Eden, the chance of a new beginning”, and the kind of legend to which Scott has consistently responded in his catalogue of fresh starts and dying falls.

The film is constructed to skillfully that it can be forgiven if the narrative, sweeping back and forth between continents to match the growing chaos of its hero's life, dulls by comparison with the splendour of the costumes, the fascination of the island forests with their billowing arcades of foliage, and the gentle mystery of a world of candles, torches and firelight. Scott's manipulative technique—Alien-style strobe flashes for a tropical storm, hand-held camera and an unnerving electronic tone for the first encounter with the tribesmen, soaring chorale for a breathtaking shot of the three caravels on a silver sea—is applied with a piercing accuracy and grace to anything from massive crowd scenes to the details of shipboard routine. The superb staging of the arrival in the New World, the camera curling expectantly around the eager boats and triumphant banners, confirms that Columbus and his chronicler are driven by a strikingly similar audacity.

Richard Alleva (review date 20 November 1992)

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SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. “Goodbye, Columbus: Ridley Scott's 1492.Commonweal 119, no. 20 (20 November 1992): 20-1.

[In the following review, Alleva criticizes 1492: Conquest of Paradise as a confused production that lacks a unifying vision of Columbus and his achievements.]

Perhaps it was inevitable. Making a movie about Columbus for this year of all years was bound to unnerve any filmmaker. Yet it's impossible to forgive what Ridley Scott has delivered. 1492: Conquest of Paradise exudes desperation, panic, and the sort of hysterical rhetoric that is born of desperation and panic.

The soundtrack by Vangelis epitomizes the giddiness of the movie while greatly adding to it. The composer is not without ideas but brings no taste or economy to their execution. He aims to make of the musical idiom of the American natives (or at least the composer's imagining of that idiom) an aural world that first lulls the European intruders, then traps them in a nightmare. But putting a synthesizer into Vangelis's hands is like introducing Al Capone to the Tommy gun. In both cases, the sheer volume of attack leads to terrorization. No actor in 1492 is allowed to speak without competing with a swelling sea of sound. No patch of nature can be observed by the audience in silence. Given any visual cue whatsoever (a raised eyebrow, a sip of wine, a witty epigram, the fall of Granada), the Greek maestro lets loose a sonic attack—a billion bees stinging each other to death—that the four horsemen of the Apocalypse might find difficult to live up to. Nobody either in the movie or in the movie house is ever allowed a moment of silence or even a chance to breathe at a normal rate.

But, though Vangelis is the virtual star of 1492, he is not its chief villain, only a hired gun brought in to distract us from the confusion of his collaborators. He had his work cut out for him, because his fellow workers were evidently mighty confused indeed.

Scriptwriter Roselyne Bosch may have researched Columbus and his times in depth but apparently didn't arrive at a unifying vision of the man and his achievement. In this film, Columbus is, by turns, the Renaissance man hungering for knowledge (“I want to find out for myself!” he declares when warned about the unknown dangers on the other side of the ocean), the true son of the Catholic church, a gold-hungry conquistador, and a multiculturalist who wants to protect the lives and civilization of the Tainos tribe that has welcomed him to America.

Now I realize that Columbus was certainly a complex fellow and his actions may not have always squared, but there is a great difference between juxtaposing contradictory actions in a dramatically illuminating way and simply bouncing from one view of Columbus to another with no regard at all for dramatic logic. To portray the explorer as a humanist rebel, Bosch shows him running amok in a monastery's copying room as if all those abysmally medieval, vilely obscurantist theological manuscripts (or are some of them treatises on navigation?) were responsible for frustrating his petitions to Isabella. But once Columbus has founded a colony, his fervent construction of a cathedral is filmed so elaborately (with Vangelis pounding away, of course) that the scene becomes practically the centerpiece of the movie. Yet we never receive a real insight into Columbus's religious feelings and how his spirituality may have enhanced or mitigated or confused his questing spirit.

Worse still, Bosch wants to present the atrocities perpetrated on the natives but also wants to exonerate Columbus. So she invents a villain, based on the historical character, Francisco Roldán (a man never proven to have acted more criminally than Columbus), on whom she loads all the crimes often imputed, rightly or wrongly, to Columbus himself. She has him lopping off hands, working slaves to death, and violating native women while Columbus only … well, what is Columbus doing while rape and rapine are destroying paradise? As far as I could tell, he seemed to be making the rounds of his colony without being able to understand exactly what was going on as Indians fell dead at his feet. I know that Columbus was as bad at administration as he was great at navigation, but was it necessary to make him a simpleton in order to exculpate his possible guilt? Or perhaps Bosch considers us simpletons? For when Columbus finally does perceive that all is not well and disposes of the villain, are we then to assume that all chattel slavery ceased in the colony? That all torture, rape, and mutilation were stopped? Is Bosch relying on the well-known fact that Americans don't read history?

Scott's direction is as confused as Bosch's writing. The crowd scenes at court bring out an unexpected clumsiness in a director who is usually visually acute even when working on lame scripts. He doesn't seem to know how to place bodies and camera so that we know exactly where to look amid the swirl and sumptuousness in the palace. Everything is clotted and confused. Scott fails with the voyage, too, treating it so elliptically that we don't feel the strain and fear of the crew as the fleet sails an unprecedented distance. Therefore, we don't truly feel the exultation of the men when they reach land.

Scott's desperation shows both in talky, informational scenes and in those of sheer physical sensation. Example of the former: when Counsellor Sanchez is hearing his secretary read a list of Columbus's demands, Scott has Sanchez putting a horse through its paces, so that the scene seems to be about equitation instead of Columbus's troubled relations with the Spanish court. Actually, the scene is about Ridley Scott worrying about his audience being bored when there's no sex or violence on screen. Yet the director is no better, in this movie, with action than with dialogue. When the new colony's cathedral is struck by lightning during a hurricane, a sign of God's anger at the colony's injustice, Scott stages the moment as if a gigantic ray gun had hit the church, so that 1492 momentarily turns into Blade Runner, an earlier and better Scott opus.

As the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Gerard Depardieu gives not a rich performance but a rich actor's performance. He coasts on a lot of old tricks: the husky voice that turns feathery whenever the hero gets dreamy, the transfixed gaze of a hypnotized bull, the fluttering fingers. We've seen these before, used to finer effect. And Depardieu is defeated by English. Only about two-thirds of his lines are understandable. I long for the skinnier, hungrier, focused Depardieu of The Return of Martin Guerre and Danton.

The supporting cast is lackluster. Two performances stand out, for very different reasons. As the arch-villain, Michael Wincott is an unintended joke. It wasn't a bad idea to have the actor made up as an evil hippy with the voice of an obscene phone-caller, but Wincott's unvaried, self-caressing hamminess suggests that he not only lacks talent but has never laid eyes upon another human being. (As a sometime actor, I can testify that there are thespians who never take the least notice of their fellow passengers to the grave.) As Counsellor Sanchez, Armande Assante looks terrific, like a figure out of Velasquez, and speaks his mediocre dialogue as if it were a decent translation of Lope de Vega. In his final showdown with Columbus, a scene the explorer is supposed to dominate, Assante knocks Depardieu off the screen simply by employing focused intensity and crisp diction.

The only other hero of this movie is Adrian Biddle, the cinematographer. Most of his work here is as cluttered as his director's. But for a twenty-minute stretch, beginning with Columbus setting foot on American soil, Biddle, using Costa Rican locations, really does make us see the glistening America that the wondering eyes of the crew see. James Agee once wrote of the “soft shining of spring.” Biddle photographs Columbus's New World as a place where such “soft shining” might be perpetual.

But the rest of 1492 betrays lack of nerve, lack of imagination, and lack of faith in a difficult but fascinating undertaking. Three lacks that Columbus, for all his many faults, never had.

Joe Abbott (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Abbott, Joe. “The ‘Monster’ Reconsidered: Blade Runner's Replicant as Romantic Hero.” Extrapolation 34, no. 4 (1993): 340-50.

[In the following essay, Abbott examines Blade Runner and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as two texts that attempt to address the implications of artificial life.]

It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery.

—Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

The “bold question” to which Victor Frankenstein makes reference in the early pages of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the question of the origin (or “principle”) of life, a question that haunted, intrigued, and consistently inspired many of Shelley's romantic contemporaries to some of their greatest poetry and philosophic arguments. Her own husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, would himself propose the question only a year after his wife's novel was first published. In his Essay on Life he writes: “What is life? … We are born, and our birth is unremembered and our infancy remembered but in fragments. … For what are we? Whence do we come, and whither do we go? Is birth the commencement, is death the conclusion of our being? What is birth and death?” (172). Because I believe this particular inquiry to be the essential thematic concern of Ridley Scott's 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner, I want to examine Mary Shelley's novel and Scott's film as two texts that attempt in a similar way—yet with radically different results—to address the issue of artificially created life. Whereas Shelley's novel encourages its audience to “deduce an apt moral from my tale” (15), Scott's film, by way of a particularly problematic sequence near the film's conclusion, questions the validity of that moral.

It is not surprising that these two texts figure forth a conflicting ethic on this issue, especially when one considers the significantly different philosophical and literary traditions out of which they come—the former British romanticism, the latter postmodernism. What is of interest here, however, is the inherent paradox a comparison uncovers: although Mary Shelley's novel is born out of a decidedly romantic tradition and, in fact, reflects a notable romantic influence, it is essentially reactionary in its thematic development; that is, the novel's “didactic” nature evidences a distrust of innovation and invention that would seem more in line with the writings of the neoclassicists that immediately preceded her, a group that the romantics themselves had consciously reacted against. Thus, neither of the leading characters in Shelley's novel embodies the romantic hero/protagonist as that figure is generally perceived.

On the other hand, we do find in Ridley Scott's decidedly postmodern world of Blade Runner the unlikely embodiment of the quintessential romantic hero in that story's “monster,” Replicant Roy Batty. Batty is a quester who seeks his creator in hopes of gaining “more life,” but as M. H. Abrams points out in his Natural Supernaturalism, the romantic quester often discovers that his “goal is an infinite one which lies forever beyond the reach of man, whose possibilities are limited by the conditions of a finite world” (194). Batty's displacement is precisely that element that necessitates his death, for the romantic hero, the film concludes, has no place in the postmodern world. To pursue this line of argument, I will examine both texts for ethical attitudes (implicit or explicit) toward scientific experimentation aimed at discovering and replicating “the principle of life,” contextualizing those attitudes within the two schools, nineteenth-century British romanticism and twentieth-century postmodernism. I will also attempt to clarify the concept of the protagonist/hero as understood from within what Abrams has termed romanticism's doctrine of “Idealism” and will examine the problematic penultimate sequence in Blade Runner, a sequence that emphasizes Batty's redemption, not Deckard's, and in so doing confirms the Replicant's status not only as human but as romantic hero as well: Batty attains here a redemptive status that Mary Shelley denies her Monster.

Frankenstein's “apt moral” recurs in various formulations throughout the novel's text, but nowhere is it articulated more clearly than in an exchange early in the novel between Victor Frankenstein and our surrogate audience, ship captain Robert Walton, “‘Learn from me,’” says Frankenstein, “‘if not my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow’” (38). The ambiguous phrase “greater than his nature will allow” is of interest to us here for two reasons: it goes against the grain of fundamental romantic ideology, and it is precisely that portion of Frankenstein's argument with which Blade Runner takes issue.

First then, Frankenstein's comment assumes a specific limitation, a clearly discernible moral boundary, inherent in human nature. To transgress that boundary is to venture too deeply into the anagogic, to invade the sacred territory of a Divine Creator and thus incur inevitable retribution. Such a “Divine” argument, however, seems strangely at odds with “the tendency in innovative Romantic thought,” which, according to Abrams, “is greatly to diminish, and at the extreme to eliminate, the role of God, leaving as the prime agencies man and the world, mind and nature” (91). This “tendency” leads to an ideology of Idealism in which “it is the subject, mind, or spirit which is primary and takes over the initiative and the functions which had once been the prerogatives of deity” (91-92). Thus the romantics tended to exalt both nature (or Nature) and the human mind that sought to commune with that nature.

It is from within this all-embracing “naturalist” philosophy that “the mind of man confronts the old heaven and earth and possesses within itself the power, if it will but recognize and avail itself of the power, to transform them into a new heaven and new earth” (Abrams 334). So it would seem that Victor Frankenstein's initial motivation is in no way at odds with romantic Idealism: “It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in it [sic] highest sense, the physical secrets of the world” (23). But Shelley's novel, rather than sanctioning such ambition, points finally to its folly, enlisting time and again Frankenstein's outbursts of anguished delirium: “I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures such as no language can describe” (74).

Mary Shelley, indeed, makes clear in her “Author's Introduction” to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein that her intentions had been to communicate how “supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world” (xxv). If we understand Shelley's “stupendous mechanism” here to be the human being, then we must acknowledge that the novel finally endorses a religious ideology that must have seemed naively archaic to practitioners of a more secularized and metaphysical romantic impulse. Ironically, such practitioners included Shelley's own husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as their close friend, George Lord Byron.

Blade Runner, on the other hand, takes an ethical stance surprisingly friendly (on this particular issue) to romanticism's doctrine of Idealism. It is not Tyrell's aspirations “to become greater than his nature will allow” that are vilified. Indeed, as Joseph Slade has argued, “Nowhere [in Blade Runner] is it suggested that humans have transgressed the laws of nature in creating life. They have, however, violated morality and decency by treating their creations as nonhuman” (13). Thus, whereas Shelley's novel develops its reactionary stance out of an initial premise that questions the morality of delving into the “sacred” realm of “the principle of life,” Blade Runner pre-supposes the ethical acceptability of such an endeavor. This stance is consistent not only with romanticism's doctrine of Idealism but with a postmodern theology in which the boundary separating the human and the divine is not so clearly defined as Mary Shelley would have had her audience believe:

In previous eras an entity was understood to be what it was because it embodied an eternal essence, and that essence determined its nature and value. In the radically contingent and historical world of contemporary biology, one in which what an entity may become cannot be known beforehand, the idea of a determining essence has become seriously problematic.

(Miller 8; emphasis added)

For Mary Shelley, the “determining essence” is clearly limited to the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible, “the Creator of the world,” in her words. Romantic Idealism broadened these boundaries to include human consciousness (and particularly, for Percy Shelley at least, the poet).1 But the determining essence in Blade Runner's postmodern world is the impersonal and monolithic Corporation with its sullied capitalist ethic, an institution that Fredric Jameson has located firmly within “the whole world system of present-day multinational capitalism”:

I want to avoid the implication that technology is in any way the “ultimately determining instance” either of our present-day social life or of our cultural production. … Rather, I want to suggest that our faulty representations of some immense communicational and computer network are themselves but a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely the whole world system of present-day multinational capitalism. The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating, not so much in its own right, but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp—namely the whole new decentred global network of the third stage of capital itself. … Yet conspiracy theory (and its garrish narrative manifestations) must be seen as a degraded attempt—through the figuration of advanced technology—to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system. It is therefore in terms of that enormous and threatening, yet only dimly perceivable, other reality of economic and social institutions that in my opinion the postmodern sublime can alone be adequately theorized.


Thus, Jameson, sees the determining agent of the postmodern sensibility not as a spiritual divinity (à la Mary Shelley) nor as a heightened sense of the metaphysical relationship between human consciousness and nature (romanticism). Rather, Jameson theorizes the principal motivating force of postmodernism as an almost incomprehensible “network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp.” This insidious network, embodied in various “economic and social institutions,” forms the infrastructure on which the capitalist model is founded. Furthermore, its ideology permeates (like mythical alligators in the sewers) “the whole world” of multinational capitalism, for which the postmodern city becomes a visual (in Blade Runner) and tangible (in the real world) signifier. Contextualized within a narrative framework, that is, the city becomes synechdochic, the “world” in miniature, a setting in which an extradiegetic, culturally induced “high tech paranoia” (Jameson 80) can be narrativized. In this way, “the impossible totality of the contemporary world system” can be confronted and dealt with in some necessary and appropriate (even if fictional) fashion—finally overcome, understood, outwitted, destroyed.

Technology, then, according to Jameson, becomes a metaphor, a signifier, a “distorted figuration” of a “deeper” cancerous development: the dehumanization of the individual at the hands of an overwhelming cultural machinery. This dehumanization generates the narrative strategy by which Blade Runner's corporate apparatus can be effectively vilified (a specifically postmodern theme) as well as made to provide the plot motivation for Batty's quest (the romantic theme). As corporate executive and Replicant creator, Dr. Eldon Tyrell combines the attributes of corrupt corporate overlord with the traditional Frankensteinian scientist-gone-astray. He has isolated himself in the Tyrell Corporation's tower, far above the literal “low lifes” inhabiting the streets of the city, and in doing so he exemplifies one of Jameson's “Faceless masters [who] continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences” (65).

Roy Batty, a cybernetic Replicant of the Tyrell Corporation's “Nexus 6” generation, undertakes as the crucial portion of his quest to confront his Maker in hopes of receiving from him the gift of an increased life-span. It is in his quest for a longer, deeper, more meaningful existence that Batty achieves his specifically “romantic” dimensions—the literal quester equally embarked on a metaphoric journey. This particular strand of British romanticism—glorifying the inner search for knowledge about self and the essence of one's own physical (and metaphysical) being—has been theorized by Harold Bloom in an essay appropriately titled “The Internalization of Quest Romance.” Bloom writes of British romanticism: “More than a revival [of traditional romance], it is an internalization of romance, particularly of the quest variety, an internalization made for more than therapeutic purposes, because made in the name of a humanizing hope” (15).

This “humanizing hope” spurs the poet onward in his search for self-knowledge; however, neither hope nor self-knowledge is an end in and of itself. As James Wilson has pointed out, “For most romantics … self-knowledge is but a preliminary step toward affinity with a transcendental realm” (98). But whether he is in search of hope, self, or transcendence, “there always remains the possibility that what the self-conscious hero discovers will devastate him” (6). Thus, Batty, in confronting the issue of his own mortality, is forced to accept what his creator points out as the ultimate fact of life, that is, its eventual end. As Batty registers the hopelessness of his quest for “more life,” his rage becomes the vehicle through which he acts out the rebellious nature attributed to the darker side of the romantic sensibility. He murders Tyrell and Sebastian—his only two potential saviors—thus assuring his own demise. These ruthless murders (and particularly Tyrell's, as it is graphically depicted on screen whereas Sebastian's is not), motivated as they are by a mixture of frustration and anger, add to Batty's already “Monstrous” dimensions, while paradoxically that same frustration coupled with despair attests to his humanity. This confusion and problematizing of emotional sensations affecting Batty's increasingly enigmatic figure give evidence of an “enmity” crucial to the romantic conception of the human experience: “Whatever may be his true and final destination,” wrote Percy Shelley, “there is a spirit within him at enmity with nothingness and dissolution (change and extinction). This is the character of all life and being” (173).

This “enmity with … dissolution … and extinction”—what for Shelley constitutes “the character of all life and being”—is, then, that element in Blade Runner that motivates Batty, simultaneously casting him in the role of quester and testifying to a decidedly human “spirit within him.” Appropriately enough, we witness the realization of the Replicant's spiritual potential in the film's penultimate sequence, when Batty inexplicably saves the life of the human he has intended to kill to revenge the deaths of his fellow Replicants. The scene develops as a climactic confrontation common in the horror/science fiction genre: man and monster, human and alien, living and pseudo-living. As Batty pursues blade runner Deckard through the deserted and cluttered dungeonlike hallways of the old Bradbury Hotel, Deckard makes his way to the roof of the building and tries to escape by leaping to an adjacent rooftop. His leap, however, is inches short, and Deckard finds himself hanging from a protruding metal rafter over what appears to be a bottomless chasm of neon lights and acid rain. As his strength ebbs, he looks upward at the looming Replicant, who stares noncommittally down at him. Smiling, Batty philosophizes as Deckard loses his grip: “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it means to be a slave.” Deckard's last bit of strength gone, he lets go, spitting at the Replicant (who apparently intends to let him fall) in one final act of hopeless defiance. Without warning, however, Batty grabs Deckard's hand just as it disengages from the rafter and pulls him back up onto the roof. The blade runner can only stare in speechless bewilderment at Batty, who seems to have acted on the basis of some instantaneous revelation incomprehensible to his human antagonist.

Various readings have been proffered for this sequence. J. P. Telotte sees Batty's saving of Deckard as a validation of the original vision inspiring android technology: “It is with that curious saving grasp that Roy Batty reminds us of the positive potential originally seen for such human artifice” (52). Joseph Slade sees it as an ironic suggestion “that humans and their clones are bound by an inarticulateness about their aspirations—that what makes both human is the sheer romantic banality of their dreams” (17). Susan Doll and Greg Faller list the “several Christian motifs: Batty stripping off his clothes, the wound on his temple, and the nail through his hand,” before going on to argue that “More importantly, [at the conclusion of the sequence] Deckard's physical and ultimate spiritual salvation is represented through the sacrifice of Batty's life, visually implied by the releasing of the dove skyward” (95).

Although each of these observations possesses its own individual merit, none, with the exception of Joseph Slade's, takes into account the possibility of Batty's potential humanity—his human “becoming.” I would argue, however, that the Christian imagery cited by Doll and Faller, besides supplying the essential energy for this particular segment of the film, demands that we see Batty as the primary subject here. David Desser has considered perhaps in greatest detail the Christian imagery dominating this sequence, yet he, like Doll and Faller, apparently considers Batty as little more than a Proppian plot function through which Deckard's salvation can be realized: “When the dove descends upon Batty, Batty sees the light and is changed from adversary to redeemer, from Antichrist to Christ. … Batty and the dove reveal the light to Deckard” (“Science Fiction and Transcendence” 177). Perhaps out of respect for all that has gone before in the film text, Desser feels obligated to assign primary subjectivity in this sequence to the blade runner of the film's title. Such a reading does create the inner consistency necessary to Desser's overall argument, which is that “human redemption … above all, is what Blade Runner is all about” (173; emphasis added). And because “Replicants … are not human” (175), Batty's potential for redemption can have little interest for Desser. Thus, Batty remains at best a metaphorical Christ, his principal function being to provide the way for Deckard to attain his own transcendence.

Forgiving Desser his erroneous claim that the dove “descends upon Batty,” we can accede to the assertion that Batty rises to the role of redeemer here.2 But positioning Deckard as primary subject (and, in fact, the only subject with potential for receiving redemption) in this scene ignores too many of the powerful elements that argue for Batty's primacy here.3 First, and consistent with Desser's argument, all of the Christian imagery cited by Doll and Faller converges on Batty. Second, the only vocalizations (apart from Deckard's extradiegetic voice-over that concludes the sequence) are the Replicant's. Third, Deckard is consistently depicted in the more passive of the two positions inasmuch as his principal contributions to the sequence are reactions: to Batty's explosive bursting through the roof of the hotel (Deckard turns to flee); to Batty's inexplicable saving of his life (Deckard stares, apparently overwhelmed, in speechless bewilderment and amazement); and to Batty's poignant self-eulogy, which is the most powerfully poetic—one could argue the most “human”—speech in the film: “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark beneath the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like … tears … in rain. … Time to die.” In this speech, with its mythic tone and literal cosmic vision, the Replicant achieves to fullest effect the tragic dimensions of a romantic poet.4 This romantic reading is further validated by Deckard's voice-over as the wonder and bewilderment drain from his face: “All it wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where do I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?” All the Replicant had wanted, in other words, were the answers to the same questions posed by Percy Bysshe Shelley quoted in the opening of this essay.5

Neither a strictly romantic nor a strictly postmodern reading of Blade Runner will prove sufficient for a reasonable understanding and/or appreciation of the film. A romantic reading must focus on the subject's quest for transcendental understanding (dramatized in the film for Batty in his quest for “more life”) as the primary thematic concern of the film. To limit analysis to this aspect of Blade Runner's theme, however, acknowledges the film's romantic impulse without acknowledging the issue at the heart of its postmodern argument: the potential for the nonhuman to become human. For Batty, no matter how heroic his final actions may be, cannot achieve the status of romantic hero without first being seen as human.

On the other hand, a strictly postmodern reading inevitably deconstructs itself, condemning Tyrell (as signifier of the dehumanizing corporate apparatus he heads) as the real villain and offering Batty's murder of him as an arguably justified striking-out against an impersonal force. The Tyrell Corporation, according to this reading, is an overpowerful corporate apparatus that has become so concerned with its own machinery (its “production” of slave labor) that it has lost sight (a metaphor made explicit in Tyrell's murder) of what James Miller has pointed to as one of the critical issues of postmodern theology: the fact that “What an entity may become cannot be known” so long as that entity is seen only as an extension of its “determining essence” (8; emphasis added). Miller goes on to say that within the postmodern debate, “Humanity is understood to be a contingent (i.e., not necessary) product of universal natural processes, rather than the crowning act of creation whereby a particular eternal essence was made actual through specific divine commands. Furthermore, that creative dynamic is seen as ongoing” (9). In such a worldview, it seems impossible to justify the “retirement” (Blade Runner's euphemism for execution of Replicants) of any genetically designed organic humanoid when, like genetic design, “Humanity” itself is conceived of as an ongoing natural process.

Because the film focuses so intensely on Batty's figurative reaching out for life, his literal and inexplicable reaching out to save Deckard becomes a highly symbolized gesture that transforms this monster into the truly tragic romantic figure that Mary Shelley's Monster never becomes. That both “monsters” come to recognize the sanctity of life indicates that both, indeed, possess the potential for redemption; but whereas Batty apparently realizes this truth in a moment of revelation just before what would have surely been Deckard's death-fall, Frankenstein's Monster comes too late to the same knowledge:

“That is also my victim!” he exclaimed [looking on the corpse of Victor Frankenstein]. “In his murder my crimes are consummated; the miserable series of my being is wound to its close! Oh, Frankenstein! Generous and self-devoted being! What does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me? I, who irretrievably destroyed thee by destroying all thou lovedst. Alas! He is cold, he cannot answer me.”


The Monster's hopeless remorse is consistent with Mary Shelley's Christian ethic as indicated in her Author's Introduction and dramatized in Victor Frankenstein's “apt moral.” Blade Runner, however, by questioning—and finally rejecting—the limitations that Frankenstein's moral stance assumes as intrinsic to human nature, effectively problematizes this ethic, inviting us to consider a radical alternative. As a result, the redeemed Batty's death speech evokes a more potent sorrow than does the Monster's, specifically because death for Frankenstein's Monster harbors a promise of peace:

I shall die. I shall no longer feel the agonies which now consume me or be the prey of feelings unsatisfied, yet unquenched. He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more, the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish. … Some years ago … I should have wept to die; now it is my only consolation. Polluted by crimes and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest but in death?


Thus, whereas the Monster relishes that his and his creator's memory “will speedily vanish” from the world they leave behind, this issue of lost legacy is the most poignant aspect of Batty's lament. It is both ironic, since the whole concept of long-term “memory” is for the generation of Nexus 6 Replicants a programmed implant, and distinctly human, as most of us desire to be remembered for something we have contributed to the human community during our lifetime.

Thus I would argue that Joseph Slade's assessment of Blade Runner as a “cybernetic tragedy” (17) really addresses only half of the issue with which the film attempts to grapple. Likewise, those who would read the text in terms of human redemption (i.e., Deckard's) alone perceive only part of a provocative and complex “spiritual” subtext informing Scott's film. Norman Spinrad has, I think, most accurately pinpointed the essence of the film when he observes that Scott has managed effectively to suggest “that ‘human’ and ‘android’ are moral and spiritual definitions and not a matter of protoplasm,” for “just as … a natural man can become a human android,” so “by achieving empathy, a manufactured creature can gain its humanity” (89). Such an idea find its greatest appeal in the nature of the ambivalence it inspires. It is at once hopeful and horrifying.


  1. In his Essay on Life, Percy Shelley paraphrases Tasso from Discorsi del Poema Eroico: “‘Non merita nome di creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta’” [None merits the name of Creator but God and the Poet] (172).

  2. For any who might miss this suggestion, Scott intercuts a closeup of Batty's Nail-Pierced Hand as it grasps Deckard before the blade runner can plummet to his death.

  3. In a recent revision of this article, retitled “The New Eve,” Desser rethinks this very issue of dramatic and thematic emphasis, providing, I think, a necessary corrective when he argues that “while Blade Runner obviously finds Rick Deckard cast in the role of hero, it is still entirely possible to see Batty as an alternative. … Batty has, moreover, not simply spared Deckard's life, he has demonstrated to the blade runner a profound sense of emotionalism, a deep spirituality, a poetic sense of wonder through his speech and the miracle of the dove” (55, 56).

  4. This particularly “aesthetic” strand of my argument is unfortunately, but unavoidably, weakened by the fact that so much of the “poetry” of this scene resides in its visual and auditory elements, elements that the page can only approximate and, thus, never fully communicate. The Replicant's intensely emotive facial expressions and other “human” mannerisms as well as the vocal inflections, indicating a kind of heroic resignation to an inevitable fate, effect a pathos strangely at odds with those emotions normally associated not only with science fiction but postmodernism as well. Thus, my use here of the word “poetry” must be understood in its cinematic sense, that is, to go beyond the simple choosing of the words to the total effect brought about by dramatic context and delivery.

  5. In the only voice-over sequence to survive Ridley Scott's “director's cut” (1991), Deckard's ruminations retain their romantic essence but achieve less poignance (and, I would argue, less dramatic effect): “I watched him die all night. It was a long, slow thing and he fought it all the way. He never whimpered and he never quit. He took all the time he had, as though he loved life very much—every second of it, even the pain. Then he was dead.” One might assume that Scott elected to use this earlier version from the shooting script because it more accurately reflects the linguistic “timbre” characteristic of the traditional hard-boiled detective on which Harrison Ford's character is obviously modeled. But this seems inconsistent with the removal of all other voice-overs from the director's cut. It seems more likely that Scott simply preferred the more personal focus of the earlier rendition to the didactic tone of Deckard's reflections in the mass-released print. Whereas the 1982 version emphasizes the spiritual similarities between the Replicant and a broader philosophical notion of “humanness,” Scott's version concerns itself more with the intensely personal experience of Batty—his death and what that experience communicates to Deckard.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. Natural Supernaturalism. New York: Norton, 1971.

Bloom, Harold. “The Internalization of Quest Romance.” The Ringers in the Tower. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1971.

Desser, David, “Blade Runner: Science Fiction and Transcendence.” Literature/Film Quarterly 13.3 (1985): 172-79.

———. “The New Eve: The Influence of Paradise Lost and Frankenstein on Blade Runner.Retrofitting “Blade Runner”: Issues in Ridley Scott's “Blade Runner” and Philip K. Dick's “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Ed. Judith B. Kerman. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular P. 1991.

Doll, Susan, and Greg Faller. “Blade Runner and Genre: Film Noir and Science Fiction.” Literature/Film Quarterly 14.2 (1986): 89-100.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-92.

Miller, James. “The Emerging Postmodern World.” Postmodern Theology. San Francisco: Harper, 1989. 1-19.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Toronto: Bantam, 1981.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Essay on Life. Reprinted in Shelley's Prose. Ed. David Lee Clark. New Amsterdam: New Amsterdam Books, 1988. 171-75.

Spinrad, Norman. Science Fiction in the Real World. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.

Slade, Joseph. “Romanticizing Cybernetics in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.Literature/Film Quarterly 18.1 (1990): 11-18.

Telotte, J. P. “The Doubles of Fantasy and the Space of Desire.” Film Criticism 11.3 (Spring 1987): 43-55.

Wilson, James D. The Romantic Heroic Ideal. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982.

Mark Kermode (review date May 1996)

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SOURCE: Kermode, Mark. Review of White Squall, by Ridley Scott. Sight and Sound 6, no. 5 (May 1996): 64.

[In the following review, Kermode describes White Squall as a dramatically flawed hybrid of film genres that is ultimately unsatisfying.]

Connecticut, 1960. Against his father's wishes, Chuck Gieg travels from home to join the crew of the school ship Albatross in Port St. George, Bermuda [in White Squall]. He is joining a group of 13 teenage boys who have enlisted for a character-building cruise under the command of ‘Skipper’ Christopher Sheldon. Early in the voyage, Gill fails to help rescue Chuck from tangled rigging ropes due to his fear of heights. The Skipper berates Gill and forces him to climb the rigging, causing him to wet his pants. During a stop at Antigua, the boys fail to bed a prostitute, and become drunk on stolen rum. The next morning, the Albatross sails without them, but returns when they have learned their lesson.

At Curaçao, the boys meet a group of Dutch girls with whom they party and Chuck enjoys a sexual liaison with Bregitta. Frank, however, is unexpectedly whisked away for dinner by his aggressive, wealthy father, with whom he rows furiously. Frank vents his anger by harpooning a dolphin, for which the Skipper expels him from the cruise. Gill climbs the ship's mast and rings a bell in his honour as Frank leaves. Back at sea, they are boarded by Cuban soldiers searching for illegal immigrants. The Skipper selflessly defends his Brazilian cook, impressing his young charges with his courage. They sail on to the Galapagos islands.

At sea, the ship is hit by a violent white-water whirlwind, a “white squall”. Unprepared to deal with the freak conditions, the panicked young crew cannot prevent the boat from capsizing. Garrett sacrifices his life while cutting a lifeboat free, and Chuck fails to rescue Gill from a flooded cabin. Meanwhile, the Skipper watches through an impenetrable porthole as his wife slowly drowns. As the storm subsides, the survivors (Chuck, Skipper, Tod, McCrea, Shay, Tracy and four others) are rescued by a freighter ship. At a formal tribunal hearing, the Skipper is accused of negligence. Tod attempts to take the blame for the wreck, admitting that he failed to turn the wheel into the storm, as instructed by the Skipper. The Skipper rebuts Todd's self-sacrifice and hands in his license. Chuck is enraged and claims that all on board were responsible. The ship's salvaged bell is rung by Frank. The Skipper embraces Frank and Chuck, and the rest of the boys, before leaving the courtroom alone.

Based on the real life reminiscences of Chuck Gieg, White Squall is a dramatically flawed generic hybrid which nevertheless earns itself a place in movie history by virtue of its devastating ship-wreck sequence, surely the finest and most gruelling ever committed to film. As such, it takes its place amongst such uneven fare as Alive (for the best-ever plane crash) and The Fugitive (best-ever train crash), both of which similarly fail to cohere as complete movies. The difference with White Squall is that Scott's visual coup de grace is no fleeting on-screen fancy. Rather it is a sustained and exhausting torrent of energy which threatens to drown the viewer in experiential overload. As the Albatross keels and groans its way into the ocean, with the soundtrack shaking our eardrums and intestines, Scott metaphorically manacles us to the doomed ship's deck, dragging us down into the whirlpool, making us gasp for air as the waters envelope the screen.

Nor is this shipwreck simply a feat of technical brilliance. The sight of Jeff Bridges watching helplessly as Caroline Goodall is sealed up in a watery tomb is shattering because we have come to know and believe in their characters: the rugged husband and wife team of Christopher and Alice Sheldon. Bridges is ideally cast as the grumpy, salty dog with a heart of gold, but Goodall essays Dr. Alice Sheldon with equal conviction. Amidst all the on-screen chaos, this couple's final lingering look delivers a weighty dramatic punch.

With such a magnificent set-piece to its credit, it's a shame that White Squall is elsewhere as uneven as the waters the Albatross traverses. From its standard rites-of-passage opening, to its predictable emotional breakthroughs (Gill climbing the mast, Chuck tasting sexual fruits) to its tearjerking courtroom climax, the movie runs the gamut of mainstream Hollywood reference points. The young boys unable to appreciate their elders' wisdom; the internal torment of the outwardly harsh task master; the rousing acceptance of shared responsibility and the maturity it bespeaks—these are all well worn staples of the saleable big-screen blockbuster. Indeed, in its shouty, showy, tribunal showdown, Scott's movie resembles nothing so much as Rob Reiner's flimsily fanciful Tom Cruise romp A Few Good Men.

Yet few Hollywood movies would dare to pivot around a disaster as emotionally draining as the sinking of the Albatross, because it undermines any potential ‘feelgood factor’. It is in this uneasy shifting of tone that White Squall's failings ultimately lie. Ironically, there is a perverse honesty about Scott's inability to decide whether his film is an uplifting rites-of-passage drama or a downbeat disaster movie. The audience's dislocation as the movie shifts gear from frothy fun to gut-churning horror surely mirrors the actual experience of those who first set sail on this cruise, but solid narrative structures are rarely built upon the inconsistencies and harsh unpredictabilities of real life. Moreover, whatever its factual basis may be, White Squall's closing courtroom scene is not a realistic conclusion. The final result is thus a sporadically memorable hotch-potch, often enjoyable, intermittently annoying, yet ultimately unsatisfying.

Raphael Shargel (review date 22 September 1997)

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SOURCE: Shargel, Raphael. “Gender and Genre Bending.” New Leader 80, no. 15 (22 September 1997): 20-1.

[In the following review, Shargel faults G.I. Jane for paying lip-service to a strong female protagonist, while the film's overall tone is exploitative towards women.]

Halfway through G.I. Jane, Master Chief John Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen) interrogates Lieutenant Jordan O'Neil (Demi Moore) in a rather unconventional fashion. He ties her hands behind her back, slaps her repeatedly across the face and rams her body through a door. When O'Neil tries to fight back, the Master Chief, infuriated, pummels her with such force that she can hardly stand. Not since 1971, the year of Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange, has a mainstream movie dwelt so long over the spectacle of a male torturing a female. Nevertheless, at the end of this ghastly sequence members of the audience cheer.

G.I. Jane, a movie about military training, is the latest entry in a genre that includes popular patriotic hits like An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun. The twist here is that the central character is a woman, the first to train as a Navy SEAL. In an intense war game the recruits are playing, the Master Chief is acting the role of a vicious POW camp captain who has imprisoned O'Neil and her unit. But the Master Chief has other motives for beating the Lieutenant so brutally. He believes that women have no business in combat. His face-off with O'Neil is a battle of wills, a last attempt at getting her to resign her commission. Her refusal to back down, punctuated by an obscenity she bellows out at the end of the sequence, cements the film's conviction that women ought to perform military service on a par with men. Still, the movie allows her to triumph only through physical humiliation in a torture scene photographed with graphic, leering gusto.

Ridley Scott, the director of G.I. Jane, is skilled at such two-faced compliments to feminism. His relatively recent Thelma and Louise depicted the victimization of women in a male world by picturing a legion of panting men single-mindedly devoted to raping and killing its sexy protagonists. As far back as 1979, Alien, the second film he made, was touted as the first to feature a female action hero, though at its climax a 10-foot extraterrestrial insect with two nasty sets of jaws chased a scantily clad Sigourney Weaver around the interior of her spaceship. In G.I. Jane Scott prefers to depict his heroine training out of uniform, in tight, revealing underclothes. One particularly gratuitous scene shows the Master Chief quizzing O'Neil while she stands naked in the shower. By paying lip service to the idea of a strong female protagonist, the director gives himself license to indulge in high-toned exploitation.

Scott learned his craft making television commercials, and his films also cater to audiences with a short attention span. Caring little for overall consistency, he aims for a minute-by-minute emotional jolt. In G.I. Jane characters give O'Neil their support, withdraw it for no good reason, then inexplicably give it again. Her fellow trainees look like male models, and they have so little personality that they are barely distinguishable from one another. We catch the Master Chief reading J. M. Coetzee, Pablo Neruda and D. H. Lawrence, but his taste for strong male writers hardly explains the intensity of his misogyny. The usually dependable Anne Bancroft, miscast as a Texas Senator, stands out only because she rants more convincingly than anyone else. Finally, the movie abandons all the plot threads it has strewn about by sending its troops into war with Libya.

Since Scott favors heavily filtered lenses, G.I. Jane has the subtlety and panache of a department store catalogue: Its gauzy tinges make every room seem freshly upholstered, every body toned and glistening, every face devoid of blemish. The result is a dully gorgeous, antiseptic work. Except when he is tormenting O'Neil, Scott has little interest in making us feel the trainees' suffering. In fact, the men's military experiences appear rather exciting. Combat in Libya, shot in a frenzied manner that combines extensive Steadicam closeups and quick, jarring zooms, is about as threatening as a music video. Scott cannot bear to make anything look ugly, not even ugliness.

Robert Ashley (review date November 1997)

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SOURCE: Ashley, Robert. Review of G.I. Jane, by Ridley Scott. Sight and Sound 7, no. 11 (November 1997): 42-3.

[In the following mixed review, Ashley observes that Scott's direction expresses ambivalence about the patriotic message in G.I. Jane.]

Lt. Jordan O'Neil works for US Navy intelligence [in G.I. Jane]. Her boyfriend is a high-ranking intelligence officer. Senator Lillian DeHaven is leading a campaign to force the Navy to allow women into their elite combat unit, the Navy SEALS. Needing to find a candidate who can get through the punishing training programme and still look good for PR purposes, DeHaven chooses O'Neil. She agrees and heads for the Salem training camp.

O'Neil's instructors and fellow trainees are extremely hostile towards her, especially Master Chief John Urgayle. At first she puts up with being treated as a special case, suffering humiliating practical jokes, but soon she shaves off her hair and insists on the same rough treatment as the men—treatment which has already broken several recruits. By coincidence, her boyfriend is ordered to monitor her case for the Navy.

Surviving the initial stages, O'Neil is put in charge of the trainees' first fake mission. They must take a tropical island post manned by their instructors, who will torture any captives they take. O'Neil's orders are disobeyed by a macho recruit and her unit is captured as a result. During interrogation, Urgayle beats her up and nearly rapes her, but she beats him down at the last.

Back at base, O'Neil celebrates with the boys and then goes to a beach party with some Navy women where she is caught in an embrace by a hidden photographer. Meanwhile, the Navy has threatened to close all its bases in DeHaven's home state, making her unelectable. When the photos appear in the newspapers, O'Neil admits defeat. But her boyfriend finds out that DeHaven is behind the smear. O'Neil threatens to expose DeHaven. She is reinstated to the SEALS and suddenly the unit is called into active service to help recover a satellite that's landed in the Libyan desert. Urgayle is spotted by Arab troops and O'Neil organises a quick rescue plan to get him out. In succeeding, she finally earns his eternal respect.

G.I. Jane would be a noisy, confusing bore of a film were it not for the way it battles our preconceptions of the military recruitment movie. On the surface, it is similar to An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun, and following the usual plotline for such films, it sets up an odd-fish outsider in a hostile military environment. To justify a woman's right to share the sharp end of combat with men at the toughest level, Lt. Jordan O'Neil is sent in among raw Navy SEAL recruits. She meets the recruitment genre's key figure, a surly instructor determined to break her. Master Chief John Urgayle is a cultured variant of the form: a near psychopath who will go to any lengths—even the near rape of his charges—to teach them a lesson. Finally our crop-headed hero O'Neil, having won the instructor's respect through vicious combat, must be blooded in a real military incident, saving US honour abroad. So she sends a few Libyans to their graves while recovering a crashed US satellite.

But G.I. Jane is a more complex and disturbing film than any of its predecessors and it has a bad conscience about its patriotic context. Where Top Gun and An Officer and a Gentleman slowly work up a full steam of passionate duty and comradeship in the hero recruit, G.I. Jane fumes to the end with a loner's bitterness. Political contradictions give the story an air of perpetual panic (not unlike that in the ridiculous Air Force One). The Navy coerces the government by threatening to close bases; the government is infinitely corruptible and will sell out any of its pawns for votes. What then is there for O'Neil to be so gung-ho about?

If an illogical love of her country was the only suspect part of her motivation, then O'Neil would still be a plausible military hero. But her estrangement from community and common sense is more profound. As she strives to win the respect of men trained to kill, the other women in the film contrive to bring about her downfall. She overcomes the woman senator who sets her up to be smeared by the press, but her achievement is hardly something for feminists to celebrate. It is one of the film's major flaws that it never asks whether it is per se a good thing that women as well as men can be killing machines. G.I. Jane remains an exceedingly bleak vision, one that sees civic duty as subordinate to the Nietzschean will to power. All that O'Neil and her thug of a mentor obtain is a still certainty of themselves amid the maelstrom of cynical manipulation.

G.I. Jane pointedly refutes the recruitment film's usual emphasis on redemptive teamwork. O'Neil becomes a team player only after she's bested everyone, and then only temporarily because, as the obligatory drinking-with-the-boys scene shows, she is fundamentally not one of the team and never can be. So the film makes O'Neil the leader whenever the chips are down—for Demi Moore to be an unthinking grunt is obviously unthinkable. Despite this, she is constantly foisted on us as a role model of self-realisation for every-woman. The few set pieces convincingly show her doing one-handed push-ups and astonishing sit-up routines which, like the scene in which she shaves her own head, are played for real. But it all seems like so much wasted narcissistic effort.

G.I. Jane is an excessively confusing film to watch. Knowing it could easily sink into a deep genre rut, Ridley Scott skips us through the recruit endurance scenes as if he's holding up storyboard cards as fast as we can register them. The combat scenes, routine to look at, are so cacophonous that you can't hear Moore's throaty growl as she dispenses orders. In fact there's something so choppy, awkward and abrasive about this whole project that you wonder if the filmmakers ever made up their mind who the film is for.

Kenneth Turan (review date 5 May 2000)

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SOURCE: Turan, Kenneth. “Russell Crowe's Muscular Performance, Stylish Battle Scenes and Rich Atmosphere Help Cut through the Shortcomings of Ridley Scott's Gladiator.Los Angeles Times (5 May 2000): F1.

[In the following review, Turan offers a generally positive assessment of Gladiator, noting that the film spends “too much time on predictable plot twists.”]

Gladiator delivers when it counts—but then and only then. Like an aging athlete who knows how to husband strength and camouflage weaknesses, it makes the most of what it does well and hopes you won't notice its limitations. With someone like Russell Crowe in the starring role, it doesn't have much to worry about.

An intensely masculine actor with the ability to be as thoroughly convincing in a tailored suit (The Insider) as in a suit of armor here, Crowe has a patent on heroic plausibility. Whether it's as commanding general Maximus, adored by the armed multitudes, or a friendless man fighting for his life in a “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” plot, Crowe brings essential physical and psychological reality to the role. Even Spartacus himself might want to echo Billy Crystal's Oscar night wail of “I am so not Spartacus” after seeing what Crowe is up to here.

If Crowe is well suited to be this film's star, the same can be said for Ridley Scott as its director. From The Duellists, his 1977 debut, through classics like Alien and Blade Runner, Scott has demonstrated a wonderful gift for ambience, for making out-of-the-ordinary worlds come alive on screen.

Initially inspired by a nifty 19th century painting of gladiators in combat by French artist Gerome, Scott and his production crew, led by cinematographer John Mathieson and production designer Arthur Max, have briskly re-created the Roman empire, circa AD 180.

Gladiator is supremely atmospheric, shrewdly mixing traditional Roman movie elements like neatly trimmed senators in carefully pressed togas and fighters who say, “We who are about to die salute you,” with the latest computer-generated wonders. Yes, we've all seen the initials “SPQR” Maximus has tattooed on his arm, but the Goodyear blimp-type shot floating over an SRO Coliseum is something invitingly new.

The problem with Gladiator is that Scott is so good at creating alternate universes that he hates to leave and overstays his welcome. Too long at a full two and a half hours, Gladiator is not as nimble outside the arena as inside.

The film depletes its considerable resources and hampers its momentum by spending too much time on predictable plot twists and standard “The mob is Rome, who will control them?” dialogue by the screenwriting tag team of David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson.

Gladiator opens with one of its best sequences, a Saving Private Ryan-type battle between the Roman legions led by Maximus and rowdy German tribes who, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, picked the wrong empire to get tough with. Wrecking an area of Britain that had previously been scheduled for deforestation, the struggle utilized 16,000 flaming arrows and 10,000 of the non-flaming variety, not to mention fully functional catapults in a violent conflagration made a bit more palatable by the lightning editing of Pietro Scalia (who cut Oliver Stone's JFK).

All Maximus wants after the fight is over is to go home to Spain and his wife and son, but Marcus Aurelius, the wise old owl of an emperor (Richard Harris, one of the film's detachment of British actors), has other plans. He wants to bypass his son Commodus and have Maximus succeed him at the top. “Commodus is not a moral man,” the emperor says somberly. “You are the son I should have had.”

A single glimpse of Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and you know that the old man is being too kind. From his first frame, the emperor's son has the look of complete dementia, combining ruthlessness, ambition and lack of decency in one sniveling body. Not even his shrewd sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), who apparently had a “do you think a princess and a guy like me” romance with Maximus years earlier, is a match for him in connivance.

Before you can say, “We who are about to die” etc., Maximus suffers through a complete life change. He ends up a slave chained to Juba Amistad's Djimon Hounsou) and owned by Proximo, a provincial trainer of gladiators. Energetically played by Oliver Reed in the last role of his life, Proximo is a former gladiator himself who teaches Maximus the tricks of the trade and makes it possible for him to go to Rome and dream of revenge against the new emperor. That's right, it's our old friend Commodus, and he's more twisted than ever.

It's in the backstage intrigue that surrounds the emperor and his court that Gladiator is at its least compelling. Too much time is spent on vacillating senators, pro forma betrayals and over-familiar lines like “The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate but the sand of the Coliseum.” Close your eyes and you can almost hear Victor Mature saying the same thing.

When it comes to hand-to-hand combat inside the arena, which the film treats like the professional wrestling of its day, albeit with more permanent results, Gladiator is more in its element. Helped by Crowe's physicality, some cooperative tigers (real and digital) and an effective score (co-written by Hans Zimmer and Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard, who also worked on The Insider), these matches provide all the visceral excitement you could ask for.

It's interesting to note that though Maximus is an invented character, both Marcus Aurelius and Commodus are drawn from history. In fact, the real Commodus, or so one respected authority tells us, was “one of the few Roman emperors of whom nothing good can be said,” a gladiator groupie who ended up being strangled by one of his wrestling partners “with the collusion of his favorite mistress.”

Let's see the World Wrestling Federation touch that.

Leslie Felperin (review date June 2000)

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SOURCE: Felperin, Leslie. “Decline and Brawl.” Sight and Sound 10, no. 6 (June 2000): 34-5.

[In the following review, Felperin asserts that Gladiator is Scott's best work to date, observing that the film functions as an allegory that expresses an implicit criticism of the contemporary American mass entertainment culture.]

The Encyclopaedia Britannica imperiously dismisses the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius as “a historically overrated figure, presiding in a bewildered way over an empire beneath the gilt of which there already lay many a decaying patch.” In Ridley Scott's magnificent new action film Gladiator the patch has become a serious infestation of dry rot that no amount of gilt, indigo or porphyry can disguise. The damage is carved on the performers themselves, many of whom seem to have been cast for their interesting facial scars as much as for their acting ability. As we watch the story—of Maximus (Russell Crowe), a Roman general demoted to a gladiator-slave who eventually revenges himself on the emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), murderer of Maximus' family and of his own father Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), and the ruin of Rome—it seems fitting that most of the awesome buildings we see are computer-or effects-generated. For all their seeming solidity, they're illusions standing in for ephemeral structures, projections of the melancholic Piranesian ruins they would become, as incorporeal and doomed as the neon-limned Los Angeles of Scott's Blade Runner. Look on ye mighty and despair.

The biblical and Roman epics of the 50s and 60s were spectacles tooled to lure back the crowds with their historically justified bloodbaths and widescreen scale after television had begun to erode cinema's audience. But they also fulfilled a more mass-psychological function. Clearly they were working out anxieties about the west's imperial role in the new world order, a west beset by barbarians on every front (The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964, on which Gladiator is largely based); fears about growing secularism (Ben-Hur, 1959); and coded justifications for the growing civil-rights movement (Spartacus, 1960). Even if the heroes lose their lives in the film's short term, we know the values they stand for—individual freedom, democracy, republicanism, monotheism—are going to win in the end.

Gladiator's subtext is as frank as a codpiece. Rome here stands in for America: corrupt at its heart, based on enslavement, dedicated to sustaining pointless wars abroad while the mob happily forgoes a more civil society for bread and circuses. One of the film's better jokes is the way we're invited to see parallels between its gladiatorial arenas and the sports arenas of today, right down to the announcer/promoter (David Hemmings) who hypes up the combatants before the bouts. While serving up dollops of exquisitely choreographed violence, Gladiator the movie is nonetheless implicitly critical of the present-day culture which spawns television shows like, well, Gladiators—the spandex-clad mock-heroic gameshow—and makes modern emperors of sportspeople and entertainers. When Commodus' sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) tries to persuade Maximus to help her overthrow her brother, he complains, “I have the power only to amuse the mob.” To which she replies, “That is power.”

Having won the war against the barbarians, Maximus is a reluctant, apolitical hero. According to one report he was tellingly named Narcissus in David Franzoni's original script, since rewritten by John Logan and William Nicholson but still an admirably expository and cerebral piece of work. Battle-weary, Maximus dreams only of husbandry (in every sense of the word) and of rejoining his family either in Hispania or the afterlife. In the subtextual schema of the film, he's Shane with a shield, the good-but-innocent sword-slinger reluctantly recruited to clean up the town—or, given that he never actually gets to rule, Colin Powell, the most popular Republican president that never was. (You could have a lot of fun mapping the current US presidential race on to Gladiator—could spoilt, slimy Commodus be George Bush Jr.?) Thankfully, the film eschews the heavy-handed religious symbolism that weighs down the older generation of epics; human through and through, Maximus is no Jesus figure, though casting directors ought to take a look at fervid-eyed Phoenix if anyone's thinking of remaking the Passion.

An effortlessly charismatic screen actor, Crowe brings shades of his other well-known roles to the part: the ruthless violence of his neo-Nazi in Romper Stomper, the guileless strength of his thug cop in L.A. Confidential, his arrogant but righteous whistleblower in The Insider. Mel Gibson was apparently considered for the role (and it's easy to see how Braveheart was an exemplar for the story), but the choice would have been too pat, too easily crowd-pleasing. More deadpan and quotidian-looking, the younger Australian (mostly keeping his native accent, as do almost all the actors here, successfully suggesting the multicultural nature of the empire) commands the movie magisterially, never more so than when hacking down opponents with a casual economy of movement, barely breaking into sweat.

Maximus' humourlessness is delicately balanced by the preening lasciviousness Phoenix brings to Commodus, managing to wriggle out of the shadow cast by Christopher Plummer's own career-making turn in the same role in The Fall of the Roman Empire. With practically the only speaking part for a woman, Nielsen (kitted out in a fetching array of quasi-modern primitive frocks complete with bondage ribbons and hennaed bindi dots between her brows) shows impressive range and projects a regal sexiness. Finally, adding ballast to the rest of cast is a gaggle of old-timers: Derek Jacobi, invoking memories of his title role in I, Claudius, plays an epicene senator; Harris' Marcus Aurelius is both ethereal and imposing; and Oliver Reed—most of whose performance seems to have survived into the film considering he died while making it—swan-songs with his best performance since the Ken Russell days (the computer-generated footage of him is barely noticeable).

For my money, it's also the best film Ridley Scott has made (Blade Runner and Alien have been overrated for too long). Less an auteur than a top-dollar metteur en scène, he's a self-effacing master of the action sequence. Here he's made the quintessential big-budget studio product that's smarter than it looks, a fiendishly arduous logistical feat that clicks together like a well-tailored suit of armour. If there's a thematic line running through his work, maybe it's the focus on heroes—Deckard in Blade Runner, Ripley in Alien, even girl gladiator Jordan O'Neil in G.I. Jane—who put their necks on the line for corrupt organisations that don't deserve their loyalty (an allegory of the sacrifice filmmakers make for studios and the braying spectator mob suggests itself).

Maximus defends the empire to Marcus Aurelius by saying he's seen the rest of the world and it's “brutal and cruel and dark. Rome is the light.” But his words seem mere idealistic rhetoric by the end: the light is dimming; the barbarians “don't know when they've been conquered”; the people don't deserve the republic he's returned to them. The promise (Titanic style) of recompense in the afterlife is the merest plaster over the decay that waits to spread.

Brenda Cooper (essay date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Cooper, Brenda. “‘Chick Flicks’ as Feminist Texts: The Appropriation of the Male Gaze in Thelma and Louise.Women's Studies in Communication 23, no. 3 (fall 2000): 277-306.

[In the following essay, Cooper argues that Thelma and Louise effectively undermines traditional Hollywood misogyny by appropriating the cinematic “male gaze” that has been utilized in the past to subjugate, objectify, and trivialize women.]

When Thelma & Louise (Scott, 1991) hit cinemas in the summer of 1991, it was met simultaneously with harsh criticism as well as enthusiastic acclaim by women spectators. In the years since its release, Thelma & Louise has generated such acclaim and controversy that Premiere magazine called it one of 10 movies that have “defined our decade” (“10 movies,” 1997, p. 63). The story of two women forced into a series of crimes and victimized by a series of men along the way, Thelma & Louise was denounced by some women critics for the “lunatic” portrayal of its female protagonists. Sheila Benson's scathing review in the Los Angeles Times described the movie as nothing more than “bloody, sadistic or explosive revenge for the evils men do,” and asked her readers: “Are we so starved for ‘strong’ women's roles that this revenge, and the pell-mell, lunatic flight that follows, fits anyone's definition of strength, or even more peculiarly, of neo-feminism?” (1991, p. 1). Gossip columnist Liz Smith warned viewers not to “send any impressionable young women to see Thelma & Louise” (cited in Shapiro, 1991, p. 63). And Margaret Carlson of Time argued that the movie represented a betrayal of the values of feminism, and said the underlying message of Thelma & Louise is that for women, “little ground has been won. For these two women, feminism never happened. … They become free but only wildly, self-destructively so” (1991, p. 57). Carlson conceded, however, that in spite of the film's flaws, “Thelma & Louise is a movie with legs. … [N]ext time a woman passes an 18-wheeler and points her finger like a pistol at the tires, the driver might just put his tongue back in his mouth where it belongs” (p. 57).

For many female critics, the film's depiction of sexism and the marginalization women experience in their everyday lives represented an affirmation of women's strength and a justification of their anger. Kathi Maio of Ms., for example, applauded the film for its “powerful images of women who dare to feel anger against male violence and domination” (1991, p. 84); and Glamour's Charla Krupp cheered Thelma & Louise as a “cathartic revenge fantasy” for women (1991, p. 142). Indeed, the movie's “revenge plot” seems to be the aspect that women critics found most appealing. “Men are always behaving so badly in real life that you should never underestimate a woman's satisfaction in seeing them get their just desserts on screen,” wrote Anne Billson in her New Statesman & Society review (1991, p. 33). “Men have no idea how annoying they can be,” she continued, fantasizing about her own revenge against harassing workmen (p. 33). “Putting men in their place” also was appreciated, said Rita Kempley of the Washington Post, because this kind of movie plot offers a woman's point-of-view rare in mainstream Hollywood: “This liberating adventure has a woman's perspective. … Bumper-sticker sassy and welcome as a rest stop, this is one sweet ride, worth hitching if you don't mind getting your hair blown” (1991, p. B6). Newsweek's Laura Shapiro agreed: “Among women moviegoers, Thelma & Louise has tapped a passion that hasn't had a decent outlet since the '70s, when the women's movement was in flower” (1991, p. 63).

Feminist film scholar Patricia Mellencamp was not surprised that Thelma & Louise “struck a social chord,” explaining that depicting women “[e]scaping the trap of ‘happily ever after’ and all that ‘once upon a time’” frees women spectators from the “expectations and limitations” of the fairy tales women are “taught to make of our lives” (1995, p. 8). Thus, watching Thelma and Louise “leave femininity, rely on friendship, and achieve fearlessness” is empowering for women spectators (Mellencamp, p. 117). Other film scholars concurred, such as Jane Ussher, who wrote that Thelma & Louise appealed to women because it represented an “explicit subversion of traditional representations of a narrow feminine role” in Hollywood films (1997, p. 125). Karen Hollinger attributed the film's appeal for women to its “expression of women's anger and frustration” in regards to “contemporary U.S. society and its treatment of its female members” (1998, pp. 122; 125). And Lisa Hogeland argued that the film's appeal for women resides in its similarity to the consciousness-raising narratives evident in women's novels during the 1970s, which strived to “name the unnameable” and contained the “political burden of speaking the realities of women's lives” (1998, p. 159), particularly in terms of women's resentment over the inequities inherent in a patriarchal society.

But it wasn't just women critics and feminist scholars who found the film's themes and the plight of Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) relevant to their lived experiences. Taking a stand against harassment and intimidation is an idea that apparently resonates with many women throughout American society. Consider the four women walking down a Chicago street the summer of the film's release who responded to the “cat calls” of harassing men by aiming imaginary guns at the men's heads and shouting: “Thelma and Louise hit Chicago” (Shapiro, 1991, p. 63). In a similar incident that summer, two women reacted to several men spewing out lewd suggestions and threats by yelling, “Where are Thelma and Louise when you need them?” (Goodman, 1991, p. 8A). Indeed, being “thelmad and louised” became a pop culture phrase for violent action after the film's release (Mellencamp. 1995, p. 8). Texan Cathy Bell identified so strongly with the movie (“It was like seeing my life played out before my eyes,” she said) that she was motivated to divorce her “redneck control freak” husband (cited in Schickel, 1991, p. 52). Clearly, the box-office hit was empowering for many women, and Susan Sarandon, who played Louise, understood these kinds of reactions from women, explaining that Thelma & Louise represented “a little bit of every woman's rage and rebellion” (cited in Dwyer, 1993, p. 39).

Aside from some dissenting voices, Thelma & Louise was an overwhelming hit among women spectators and critics, with most women experiencing the film as “cathartic and affirming” (Maio, 1991, p. 82). The enthusiastic responses from many women spectators reflect far more than women simply enjoying “revenge for the evils men do” (Benson, 1991, p. 1). Further, women's strong endorsements of the movie's protagonists challenge charges that the film betrays feminism (Carlson, 1991). Rather, I argue that the movie's popularity with women can be explained through an explication of the film's alternative cinematic gazes that challenge and resist patriarchal construction, opening the film's text to a feminist reading and offering women unique spectatorship possibilities. The result is a subversive narrative that effectively negates complaints that Thelma and Louise's freedom is self-destructive and that male dominance is reaffirmed in screenwriter Callie Khouri's controversial screenplay.

My study examines how Thelma & Louise turned the tables on traditional Hollywood chauvinism, appropriating for its female protagonists as well as for its female viewers the male gaze that Hollywood films have long used to subjugate, objectify, and trivialize women. Before moving to the discussion of the female gazes structuring the narratives in Thelma & Louise and a development of the film as a feminist text, the following section provides a conceptual framework for explicating these subversive gazes within film narratives.


In her seminal 1975 work, Laura Mulvey asserted that the dominant male gazes in mainstream Hollywood films reflect and satisfy the male unconscious: most filmmakers are male, thus the voyeuristic gaze of the camera is male; male characters in the film's narratives make women the objects of their gaze; and inevitably, the spectator's gaze reflects the voyeuristic male gazes of the camera and the male actors. The result is film narratives that marginalize women and encourage spectator identification with male protagonists. Consequently, Mulvey argued that the patriarchal hegemony dominating Hollywood makes impossible a female gaze free of male constructs, and a feminist voice can only be found in counter-culture cinema. Although Ussher (1997) agreed that the “masculine gaze,” which “reifies the social position of ‘man’ within the traditional script of heterosexuality—the position of power, authority and sexualized control over ‘woman’” still dominates mainstream Hollywood films, she argued that just as women have resisted the “Prince Charming” fairy tales of our culture, they have actively “reformulated and resisted the archetypal ‘masculine gaze’” in cinema (pp. 85-86).

Indeed, Lorraine Gamman (1989) argued that women spectators may reject the male gaze and, instead, identify with a female gaze they “read” in mainstream media narratives. Further, Gamman stated that Mulvey's work (1975), as well as other psychoanalytical investigations of women's media experiences (e.g., Metz, 1975/1982), do not conceptualize female sexuality adequately, nor do their arguments accommodate how other identification aspects such as race and class may affect the ways in which viewers identify with film characters: “[J]ust how useful is the [psychoanalytic] theory for studying female spectatorship if it cannot adequately formulate the significance of the active female experience except in terms that assume a masculine position in language” (p. 24). Similarly, Lucie Arbuthnot and Gail Seneca (1990) asserted that feminist film research that concentrates on “male paradigms and male pleasure, even if only to challenge them, may simply miss the mark if our goal is to understand and affirm our own pleasure” (p. 124).

Gamman's (1989) and Arbuthnot and Seneca's (1990) arguments mirror those of Gaylyn Studlar (1990), who stated that psychoanalytical theories result in conceptually narrow and theoretically abstract accounts of female subjectivity that cannot adequately address the “complexities of female experience with the cinema” (p. 74). Judith Mayne (1993) agreed, pointing out that Christian Metz's psychoanalytical work lacks any feminist perspective (p. 52), and that rather than limiting studies of spectatorship to psychoanalytical investigations, what is most crucial is understanding what Mayne refers to as the “paradoxes of spectatorship” (pp. 77-102). Jackie Stacey (1991) concurred, asserting that spectator identification research needs to transcend its reliance on psychoanalytic theory in order to examine the cultural and social dimensions that contribute to how spectators produce identification and subsequent meaning with film texts, even appropriating patriarchal film narratives. In fact, Mulvey's later work (1989) addressed the problems of approaching spectatorship from her earlier perspective, explaining that it limited researchers to an “either/or” polarization of the male gaze versus the female object of the gaze, and opened itself to constant skepticism that all female film roles reinforce patriarchal forms of spectator identity: “There is a sense in which this argument, important as it is for analysing the existing state of things, hinders the possibility of change and remains caught ultimately within its own dualistic terms” (p. 162).1

In her articulation of a female gaze, Gamman (1989) argued that through the use of female protagonists and women-centered themes, for instance, media narratives may resist patriarchal construction by appropriating the male gaze, representing instead a female gaze that “articulates mockery of machismo” (p. 15). As a narrative strategy, mockery expresses a “coherent, if not controlling, female gaze” that effects “a fissure in the representation of power itself” (Gamman, p. 15), thus disrupting male dominance. For example, in the television series Cagney & Lacey, the female gaze is developed from the point of view of Christine Cagney (Sharon Gless) and Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly), who articulate this challenging gaze through “witty put-downs of male aspirations for total control” (p. 15). Gamman explained that Isbecki—the series' “macho bore” male character—represents a “conscious narrative device employed to illustrate sexism in the workplace,” but his sexism is subverted through a female gaze that mocks his macho behaviors (Gamman, p. 15). This “playfulness” of the female gaze disrupts rather than assumes dominance in the narratives, and illustrates in a “witty and amusing way why the male gaze is sexist,” inviting spectators to join the mockery of sexism (Gamman, p. 16). Significantly, Gless and Daly are not merely passive objects for male voyeurism: “[T]hey ‘speak’ female desire. They look back” (p. 16).

Another strategy Gamman (1989) discussed that co-opts the male gaze in media narratives is the depiction of “ideas of female friendship and solidarity” because these images constitute an “overall female perspective”—a female gaze (p. 12). For example, media depictions of women's friendships generally reflect the “ubiquitous male gaze of classic Hollywood cinema” where women are not shown as friends, but as competitors and rivals, both in the workplace and in relationships with men (Gamman, p. 13). As an exception to these competitive female relationships, Gamman again cited the characters from Cagney & Lacey, because these women were partners, not rivals, and enjoyed a close personal friendship.

Similarly, in their feminist reading of the 1953 movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe (Lorelei) and Jane Russell (Dorothy), Arbuthnot and Seneca (1990) demonstrated that film narratives depicting women as friends rather than rivals can be read as representing a text that resists patriarchal definition and male objectification. They argued that despite the “superficial story of heterosexual romance” (p. 113) in this movie, the romantic escapades of the film's characters are “continually disrupted and undermined” (p. 116) by a more central text that is articulated through the women's resistance to male objectification and their connection to each other. The result is a “feminist text which both denies men pleasure to some degree, and more importantly, celebrates women's pleasure in each other” (p. 113). For instance, although Monroe and Russell are certainly “spectacles for male attention.” they “return the look,” actively invading male space and making the male characters “spectacles” for women's attention; in so doing, they refuse to yield to the male gaze (p. 116): “By becoming active themselves, they make it impossible for men to act upon them. They are actors and initiators in their relations with men” (p. 117).

Further, Arbuthnot and Seneca (1990) illustrated how the celebration of the women's “strength and connection to each other” also subverts the “objectifying male gaze” (p. 119):

Russell and Monroe neither accept the social powerlessness of women nor the imperative of a primary allegiance to men. Instead, they emanate strength and power, and celebrate their primary allegiance to each other. The friends' feelings for each other supersede their more superficial connections with men.

(p. 119)

Like Gless and Daly's friendship in Cagney & Lacey, the friendship between Monroe and Russell lacks the “competitiveness, envy, and pettiness” typical of Hollywood narratives about women's relationships (p. 120). And although Arbuthnot and Seneca did not focus on the mockery in the film's narratives, they nonetheless point out that the depiction of some of the male characters as “ludicrous sap[s]” (p. 119) is a strategy to further subvert the male gaze, which fits Gamman's (1989) conception of mockery as a resistance strategy.

Such images represent important shifts in ideology from mainstream Hollywood films and are particularly appealing to women spectators because the focus is on “female activity rather than on female sexuality,” and on narratives embedded in “general philosophies about meaning spoken through the female protagonists” (Gamman, 1989, pp. 19, 21). This, in turn, provides new opportunities for female spectatorship. It is important to note, however, that neither Gamman nor Arbuthnot and Seneca (1990) are suggesting that a female gaze can be achieved by simple role reversals, nor does a female gaze completely replace the dominant male gaze of mainstream Hollywood. Rather, these scholars are suggesting ways in which female gazes privileging women's perspectives are able to “cohabit the space” occupied by the male gaze, while simultaneously subverting the dominant gaze within mainstream conventions (Gamman, p. 16). Again disagreeing with Mulvey (1975), Gamman asserted that a female gaze can be “articulated in the context of masculinist ideologies” (p. 18) as the gaze negotiates “hierarchies of discourse about ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ within the narrative itself” from a “feminist sub-text” that “alters the dynamics” of power relations between women and men (p. 16). Similarly, Arbuthnot and Seneca asserted: “It is the tension between male objectification of women, and women's resistance to that objectification, that opens Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to a feminist reading. It is the clear and celebrated connection between Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell which, for us, transforms Gentlemen Prefer Blondes into a profoundly feminist text” (p. 123).

Like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Cagney & Lacey,Thelma & Louise is a product of mainstream Hollywood and its patriarchal environment. In explaining her goals for Thelma & Louise, screenwriter Callie Khouri said she was “fed up with the passive role of women” (cited in Simpson, 1991, p. 55) and their predominant depictions in Hollywood movies as “bimbos, whores and nagging wives” (cited in Rohter. 1991, p. C24). “I'm a feminist,” Khouri explained, “so clearly it [film] is going to have my point of view” (cited in Rohter, p. C21). Khouri wanted to write a screenplay in which the women characters were not compromised, in order to counter a Hollywood environment that doesn't “really want to see women operating outside the boundaries that are prescribed for them” (cited in Simpson, p. 55). Her screenplay was structured specifically to challenge these patriarchal boundaries—both cinematically and societally—and in turn, the film presents spectators with narratives and alternative gazes that encourage viewers to feel through the “female figures on screen” (Clover, 1991, p. 22): in other words, to identify with women who resist the sexism prevalent in Hollywood and American society. “Usually women enjoy a movie in spite of themselves, not because it's made for them” Khouri explained (cited in Krupp, 1991, p. 142). Women critics appreciated Khouri's attention to a female perspective: “The most revelatory aspect of this film is its unmistakably female point of view, and a tractor-trailer thundering by their car evokes a truth known to every woman” (Shapiro, 1991, p. 63). Others, such as Billson (1991), expressed astonishment that more movies don't offer similar spectatorship options for women: “Hollywood films are about adolescent male wish fulfillment. You wonder why more filmmakers can't see the vast untapped audience of women panting for some wish fulfillment of their own” (p. 33).

The following section discusses the specific strategies explicated from Thelma & Louise that articulate female gazes and structure the mockery within the film's narratives, thus presenting audiences with new spectatorship possibilities, particularly for women. The analysis of the female gazes directs this feminist critique of Thelma & Louise away from the ways the film's narrative “affords pleasure or denies pleasure, to men,” and turns us instead toward ways in which women gain pleasure from the film (Arbuthnot & Seneca, 1990, p. 123). The discussion will demonstrate how mainstream films “can facilitate a dominant female gaze and a route whereby feminist meanings can be introduced in order to disturb the status quo” (Gamman, 1989, p. 12). As Arbuthnot and Seneca argued, “it is time to move beyond the analysis of male pleasure in viewing classical narrative films, in order to destroy it, to an exploration of female pleasure, in order to enhance it” (p. 123).


Female gazes are developed in the narrative structure of Thelma & Louise in three key areas: 1) resistance to male objectification and dominance, as articulated through the protagonists' mockery of the key male characters—Darryl, Thelma's emotionally abusive husband; the film's law enforcement officers; the leering truck driver; and Harlan, the would-be rapist; 2) “returning the look” by making men spectacles for women's attention, particularly J. D., the sexy, hitchhiking con-man; and 3), the celebration of women friendships. Significantly, the female gazes in each area are constructed through the agency granted to Thelma and Louise, thus presenting spectators with narratives that challenge the “traditional cinematic association of activity with masculinity” (Hollinger, p. 1998, p. 122).


The most obvious development of a female gaze as mockery of male dominance and sexism in Thelma & Louise is articulated through the exaggerated and stereotypical deceptions of the film's macho male characters. It is precisely the “witty and amusing” (Gamman, 1989, p. 16) exaggerations of the men's chauvinist attitudes and behaviors that function as narrative devices to encourage spectators' participation in the humorous ridicule of these characters' blatant sexism and misogyny. For example, in an opening scene in which Thelma is working up the courage to ask her husband Darryl for permission to take the weekend trip with Louise, she stalls by first asking if he'd like “anything special” for dinner. While Darryl continues to primp his overmoussed hair, he chastises Thelma as if she were a child: “I don't give a shit what we have for dinner. I may not even make it home for dinner. You know how Fridays are.” When Thelma responds—“Funny how so many people want to buy carpet on a Friday night”—spectators know that Thelma is passively mocking her philandering husband for assuming she's naive enough to believe his story about working late. This scene encourages spectators to share Thelma's gaze and participate in her mockery, making it easy to laugh when Darryl slips and falls while getting into his bright red Corvette convertible (a macho symbol in itself).

As Darryl continues to be an easy target for mockery throughout the film, spectators also witness Thelma's growing feminist consciousness, as her simple awareness of the demeaning way her husband treats her progresses to anger toward Darryl specifically, as well as toward broader issues of sexism in society.2 Consider Darryl's responses to Thelma's telephone call after she and Louise become fugitives. As the scene opens, viewers see Darryl stretched out in a recliner watching a football game on a big-screen television, surrounded by bags of snack food, wearing gold necklaces and bracelets with his mismatched shorts and muscle shirt. Despite the fact that he returned to an empty house and has no idea where Thelma is, Darryl tells her to “hold on,” and finishes watching a play on the football game before ordering his wife to, “Get your ass back here, Thelma, now, goddamnit!” When Thelma reminds Darryl that “You're my husband, not my father,” Darryl explodes: “Oh no! That Louise is nothing but a bad influence. If you're not back here tonight, Thelma, well then … I just don't wanna say.” Everything Darryl says and does in this scene functions as a narrative device to set the stage for spectators to cheer when Thelma retorts—“Darryl, go fuck yourself”—and hangs up on her husband. And in a later scene, viewers see Darryl, still dressed in his shorts and gold chains, step in the pizza he left on the floor, an action that even elicits laughter from the visiting police officer.

Much of the effectiveness of these scenes in encouraging spectators to join in the mockery stems from Darryl's representation as a man overtly confident that he is smart and sexy, although spectators know better. For spectators, there's a sense of vicariousness, or voyeurism—of knowing something about Darryl of which he is completely unaware and participating in making fun of him. We're encouraged to see Darryl as an unsympathetic jerk, not as a character to identify with, a depiction that challenges the male cinematic gaze (Mulvey, 1975).

Law enforcement officers have long been targets for stereotypical depictions of males in film, and Thelma & Louise takes full advantage of these macho stereotypes. Consider the Highway Patrol officer who pulls Louise over for speeding. Before he says anything, his meticulous uniform, aviator shades and macho stride cue spectators that this guy is on a real power trip, and if we had any doubts, they disappear when Louise clues us in—“Oh my God, he's a Nazi.” His macho demeanor dissolves into whimpers and sniveling, however, when Thelma and Louise disarm him, destroy his police radio and order him out of his cruiser and into the car's trunk. Before locking him in the truck and throwing away his keys, the women take not only his gun and additional ammunition, but also the beer they find in the cruiser's trunk; as a final insult, Louise trades her sunglasses for the patrolman's aviator shades.

A female gaze is developed in this scene not only through the mockery of a “masculinised notion of power” (Gamman, 1989, p. 15) exemplified by the state trooper, but also through the agency accorded to our protagonists. As Hogeland (1998) explained, from the time Thelma points her gun at the officer, she appropriates “discourses of patriarchal pronouncement” (p. 159) and power by the way she parodies the officer's language. For example, the officer's command to Louise—“You wanna step out of the car, please”—is parodied by Thelma when she politely tells the officer, “You wanna step into the trunk, please?” As the officer climbs in his trunk, Thelma responds to his tearful pleas that he has a wife and children by warning him, “Be sweet to them. Especially your wife. My husband wasn't sweet to me. Look how I turned out.” With this response, Thelma has not only parodied the cop's plea for mercy (Hogeland, 1998), but spectators also are reminded of the condescending way Darryl treated his wife. Thus, mockery as a strategy of resistance operates on two levels: the “witty and amusing way” (Gamman, 1989, p. 16) that the male characters' sexism is depicted, and the resistance of the two women who outsmart some of the ultimate symbols of patriarchal authority.

Although not developed as thoroughly as some of the other male characters, the arrogance and obvious ineptitude of Max, the FBI officer, further perpetuates audience identification with the film's “mockery of machismo” (Gamman, 1989, p. 15). Max is the epitome of the power-tripping, ineffectual—and sexist—male authority figure. Max's explanation to Darryl about how to keep Thelma on the telephone long enough to trace her calls, illustrates his condescending attitude toward women: “Just be gentle. You know, like you're happy to hear from her. Like you really miss her. Women love that shit.” Thelma is not so easily duped. She immediately sees through Darryl's uncharacteristic sweetness when he answers the phone, and hangs up, thwarting Max's attempts to trace her call. “He knows,” she tells Louise. The challenge to Max's authority continues throughout the film as Thelma and Louise effectively evade his efforts to capture them. And when he finally catches up with the women, Max has called out helicopters and an army of police officers to capture these two “armed and dangerous” criminals. The ultimate insult to Max and his patriarchal position, however, is that despite his battalions of officers with guns and rifles aimed at Thelma and Louise, in the end, the women still evade him and render both his authority and the legal system impotent when they drive off the cliff.

Perhaps no male character better exemplifies the film's witty mockery of sexism than the leering truck driver who Thelma and Louise repeatedly encounter as they flee toward Mexico. From the first time spectators see this man flicking his tongue obscenely at the women and gesturing to his lap, women viewers can identify with our protagonists. Like Darryl, the trucker's sexism is exaggerated precisely to encourage spectators to share Thelma and Louise's perspective and to participate in their mockery of this character. He may call himself the “storm trooper of love,” but spectators know that he's really just another sexist jerk. In fact, from a woman's perspective, the man has no redeeming qualities, making it easy to appreciate the way Thelma and Louise confront him in one of the most talked-about scenes from the movie. After repeatedly being subjected to his lecherous behavior on the road, the two women decide to teach the trucker a lesson. When he yells to them—“You girls ready for a big dick?”—Thelma and Louise instruct him to follow them and they pull of the road. The mockery continues as we watch the scruffy trucker remove his wedding ring, squirt breath freshener in his mouth, and swagger toward Thelma and Louise, confident of a sexual encounter. Sitting on top of Louise's convertible, guns tucked in their jeans, the women surprise the trucker by confronting him with his obnoxious behavior and demanding an apology instead. When the belligerent trucker responds to the women's demands for an apology by yelling, “Fuck you,” and turns to walk away, Louise shoots out the tires of his 18-wheeler. Still unapologetic, the man yells at Louise, “You bitch!” Thelma and Louise exchange looks. “I don't think he's going to apologize,” says Louise, and both women fire shots that turn the tanker truck into a ball of fire. As Thelma and Louise race away from the burning wreckage, congratulating each other on their sharp shooting, we hear the trucker scream over the noise: “You bitches. You bitches from hell.” In a final indignity, Thelma retrieves the trucker's hat, emblematic of male machismo, and jams the trophy on her head.

Two things are particularly significant to the articulation of the female gaze in the protagonists' encounters with the trucker. First, witty and humorous “mockery of the lecherous” gaze (Gamman, 1989, p. 23) is used as a strategy throughout the scenes, encouraging viewers to see the sexism inherent in the male gaze. Had the truck driver been less obnoxiously sexist, Thelma and Louise's actions—and spectators' enjoyment of them—may not have seemed justified. Just as important, the protagonists refuse to become the objects of the pervasive male gaze. Rather, they appropriate the gaze and, through the sexist actions of the trucker, encourage spectators to share their point of view. Thus, we can enthusiastically applaud the truck's explosion and laugh in appreciation when the trucker calls Thelma and Louise “bitches from hell.” New Statesman & Society film critic Anne Billson (1991) agreed: “My favourite bit in Thelma & Louise is when the women act out the fantasies of millions of female filmgoers by teaching a truckdriver some manners. They do this by blowing up his truck, and he calls them ‘bitches from hell.’ If only real life were half so romantic” (p. 33).

When spectators are first introduced to Harlan, the would-be rapist, the film's structure also develops narratives that humorously mock sexism. His “pick-up” lines to Thelma in the Silver Bullet club are so juvenile and sexist—“Now, what are a couple of Kewpie dolls like you doing in a place like this?” and, “It's just hard not to notice two such pretty ladies as yourself”—that Harlan is depicted as comical. And when Louise and the night club waitress roll their eyes and exchange a “knowing” look in response to Harlan's crude flirting, spectators are encouraged to share that knowledge; women especially can participate vicariously in this mockery of Harlan. From the first words he utters, Harlan is presented to viewers as a chauvinistic, unsympathetic, and simultaneously laughable and dangerous character, a depiction that again challenges the male gaze that has dominated mainstream Hollywood films.

The night club scenes are constructed in such a way as to encourage spectators to feel ridicule for Harlan and empathy for naive Thelma. For instance, while spectators watch Harlan encourage Thelma to keep drinking, and then twirl her around on the dance floor, we know, even if Thelma doesn't, that Harlan is trying to get her drunk, and then “get lucky.” The film's humorous mockery of Harlan shifts dramatically, however, when he takes advantage of Thelma's naive “drunken dance-floor flirtation” with him (Kempley, 1991, p. B6), and attempts to rape her. As spectators, our ridicule instantly turns to outrage when Harlan assaults Thelma and she tearfully fights off his attacks. When he strikes Thelma and calls her a “fucking bitch,” Harlan functions as a narrative device, symbolizing simultaneously “a lifetime's worth of existential rape” of women (Murphy, 1991, p. 29), and the inequity of a societal system in which rape is often viewed by men as something that doesn't really hurt women.3 The following scene when Louise walks out of the club and interrupts the assault represents both a woman's perspective of sexual abuse and a challenge to myths about rape:

Let her go.
Get the fuck out of here.
Louise presses a gun to Harlan's head.
You let her go, you fucking asshole, or I'm going to splatter your ugly face all over this nice car.
Harlan releases Thelma and raises his arms defensively in the air.
Now calm down. We were just having a little fun.
Looks like you've got a fucked up idea of fun. … In the future, when a woman's crying like that, she isn't having any fun.
Thelma and Louise turn to walk away.
Bitch. I should have gone ahead and fucked her.
What did you say?
I said suck my cock.

Louise's rage and subsequent response to the attempted rape and Harlan's belligerent and unapologetic taunts—almost reflexively shooting and killing him—epitomize a female gaze: women can identify with the terror and outrage Thelma and Louise feel, and see Harlan through the protagonists' eyes and experiences.4 This scene still makes a mockery of sexism, as well as debunking societal myths of rape, but humor is replaced by the harsh reality of male violence against women.

The inequities in a patriarchal system that often assume women ask to be raped because of their actions or dress are an underlying theme throughout the film, overtly challenging the blatant sexism and misogyny inherent in societal myths surrounding rape. For instance, when Thelma suggests that she and Louise should go to the police to report the assault, Louise explains: “Just about a hundred goddamn people saw you dancing cheek to cheek with him all night! Who's going to believe that!? We just don't live in that kind of a world, Thelma. Goddamnit!” Similar challenges to rape myths and an unjust court system are articulated after Louise explains to an incredulous Thelma that they may be charged with murder:

I'll say he raped me and you had to shoot him! That's almost the truth!
Won't work.
Why not?!
Cause there's no physical evidence. We can't prove he did it. We can't even probably prove by now that he touched you.
God. The law is some tricky shit, isn't it?

And toward the end of the film when Louise expresses regret for her decisions, Thelma reminds her why she made those decisions in the first place, a conversation that reflects Thelma's growing feminist consciousness:

Nobody would believe us. We'd still get in trouble. We'd still have our lives ruined. And you know what else?. … That guy was hurting me. And if you hadn't come out when you did, he'd a hurt me a lot worse. And probably nothing would have happened to him. 'Cause everybody did see me dancing with him all night. They would have made out like I asked for it. My life would have been ruined a whole lot worse than it is now.

Further, Louise's implied familiarity with rape prosecution and her refusal to explain an earlier part of her life in Texas, encourage viewers to assume that Louise had been raped herself and that her rapist was not punished. Thus, the narratives function not only to challenge rape myths, but also the patriarchal justice system that turns victims of rape into the guilty parties: “The sheer surprise of Thelma & Louise is to have shown, in a way that serious films about the issue of rape (c.f., The Accused) could never show, how victims of sexual crimes are unaccountably placed in the position of the guilty ones, positioned as fair game for further attack” (Williams, 1991, p. 28). It is this recognition that women who are victimized by rapists are more often than not also victimized by a male-dominated legal system, that allows the women to view Harlan's murder as justified and in turn, to identify with the unapologetic Thelma when she declares—“And I'm not sorry that son of a bitch is dead. I'm only sorry that it was you that did it and not me”—a statement that reveals Thelma's rage as she's progressed to the final stages of feminist consciousness.

Critics such as Benson (1991), who complained that in Thelma & Louise “men are drawn as cartoons for the express purpose of being toppled, fatally or otherwise,” resulting in a movie that “reflects an awful contempt for men” (p. 1), or male critics such as Richard Johnson (1991), who charged that the film was “so degrading to men, with pathetic stereotypes of testosterone-crazed behavior, that Loews Theaters should ban it immediately” (p. 8),5 seem to be missing the irony of the film's use of mockery as a narrative device to expose sexism and its consequences for women in American society. The men in Thelma & Louise are “drawn as cartoons” that exhibit “pathetic stereotypes of testosterone-crazed behavior,” but with a goal of demonstrating “why the male gaze is sexist” (Gamman, 1989, p. 16), not to represent “an awful contempt for men.”6 Screenwriter Khouri defended the right of a woman to be just as angry and “bad as a man”:

Films never deal with the incredible anger women feel about the victimization of their gender. … Many women feel anger when a baboon harasses them while walking down the street. We are expected to sublimate our humanity, to ignore; does that mean we don't feel it? If old fat women harassed young guys like that, things would be different.

(cited in Krupp, 1991, p. 142)

The female gaze in the narratives of Thelma & Louise is not limited to the film's mockery of sexist male characters and the rape myths inherent in a patriarchal society. A woman's perspective, and its subsequent challenge to patriarchal construction, also is articulated through the active way Thelma and Louise assert their sexuality, an issue I discuss next.


Female gazes also are developed in Thelma & Louise through the active way the protagonists invade male space when they “return the look” (Arbuthnot & Seneca, 1990, p. 116) and make the male characters objects for women's voyeurism. Like the protagonists from Cagney & Lacey and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Thelma and Louise refuse to yield to the male gaze: they “‘speak’ female desire. They look back” (Gamman, 1989, p. 16). For example, in an early scene Louise defies objectification when she walks past a man at a convenience store and angrily confronts him: “What are you looking at?” But making men spectacles for women's gaze is articulated most fully through the character played by Brad Pitt, J. D., the hitchhiking con man. From Thelma's first encounter with J. D., she openly expresses her admiration for his “cute butt” and pants suggestively when she tries to convince Louise to give J. D. a ride.

Significantly, J. D.'s character and Thelma's attraction to him function as narrative devices to represent Thelma's liberation from her former passivity, allowing her to become an assertive initiator and actor (Arbuthnot & Seneca, 1990, p. 117) in her relations with men. Thelma's ultimate objectification of J. D. is represented in the pivotal scenes in which Thelma and J. D. have sex—Thelma's first satisfactory sexual experience. This scene generated much criticism from some feminists, such as Carlson (1991), who argued that showing Thelma jumping into bed with a stranger soon after she is nearly raped and her assailant killed sends a message that “the only thing an unhappy woman needs is good sex to make everything all right” (p. 57). Carlson further complained that, “It requires a breathtaking midair somersault of faith to believe Thelma would be eager to take up with another stranger so soon and would let him into her motel room and go limp with desire after he admits he robs convenience stores for a living” (p. 57). However, the sexual encounter can be read oppositionally, as the female gaze appropriating the male gaze. As Man (1993) argued, the episode represents empowering narratives for Thelma: “Not only does Thelma gain sexual liberation in her relationship with J. D.; she also gains the opportunity to play out his life story, to adopt a dominant male role when she performs her gun waving bandit act which J. D. taught her” (p. 41). Mellencamp (1995) agreed, observing that sex with J. D. is a liberating experience for Thelma because sex “is no longer a fantasy keeping Thelma captive or a secret key to identity” (p. 149).

From these readings, Thelma's decision to invite J. D. into her motel room can represent an expression of independence, as does her decision to use his knowledge about holdups to aid in their escape to Mexico. In other words, Thelma was simply exercising her right to make choices regarding her own sexual freedom and independence, and her determination to “finally understand what all the fuss is about.” Thus, rather than being objectified by the men in the film, Thelma and Louise “‘speak’ female desire” (Gamman, 1989, p. 16), while simultaneously mocking Darryl's ineptitude that left Thelma sexually unfulfilled during years of marriage. Further, Louise is happy that her best friend has finally been “laid properly:” “Oh darlin', I'm so happy for you,” Louise says appreciatively, “That's great.” Here the women's “girl talk” mocks standard male “locker room” bragging: Thelma and Louise appreciate and share the intimacy of Thelma's sexual awakening, bonding in a way that ridicules the macho bravado typical in media depictions of men's discussions about their sexual conquests.

The third strategy of resistance is developed through the film's representation of Thelma and Louise's friendship, a representation that further articulates female gazes as patriarchal resistance in the film's narratives. Men are extraneous, not central, to their lives.


As Shapiro (1991) explained in her review of Thelma & Louise, “The simple but subversive truth is that neither woman needs a man to complete her” (p. 63). And although some women critics disagreed with her assessment (e.g., Carlson, 1991), foregrounding the “power of female bonds” (Arbuthnot & Seneca, 1990, p. 120) shared by Thelma and Louise, and their ultimate decision to choose each other over men—and even to die together—articulates a strong female gaze that challenges and defies patriarchal construction. For instance, the fact that Thelma and Louise are depicted as “bonding in a sisterhood that offers an alternative to their former male-centered lives” (Man, 1993, pp. 41-42) presents a major threat to patriarchy. Indeed, their bond is expressed in the film's soundtrack: “You're a part of me, I'm a part of you, wherever we may travel, whatever we go through” (Frey, 1991).

Structuring the film's narratives through the lens of Thelma and Louise's friendship is important for women spectators, not only because supportive female relationships that “pose a threat to patriarchy” are so rare in media (Arbuthnot & Seneca, 1990, p. 120; Gamman, 1989), but also because, like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the movie's “expression and celebration of women's strength and connection to each other” provide women with “opportunities for our own positive identification with women” in films (Arbuthnot & Seneca, p. 119). Further, because women tend to fulfill their interpersonal needs through relationships with other women (Chodorow, 1978), having such cinematic opportunities that validate and privilege women's connection with each other encourages spectators' identification with the film's female protagonists (Arbuthnot & Seneca). This is where the narratives of Thelma & Louise vary dramatically from most mainstream Hollywood feature films: as in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the narratives foreground Thelma and Louise's connection to each other, not to other men. Further, there are no strong male characters in the film with whom viewers might identify in the objectification of women (Arbuthnot & Seneca); rather, throughout the movie, the male characters are either left behind, objectified themselves, defied, ridiculed, or even murdered, presenting a significant challenge to the male gaze (Mulvey, 1975).

From the beginning of the film, when Thelma decides to go with Louise on a weekend trip to “teach Jimmy a lesson” rather than to stay at home with Darryl (or ask his permission to leave), spectators sense that their connection to each other is more important than any connection to the men in their lives. The film's narratives and the visual images create a celebration of the women and their shared relationship. The looks exchanged between the two protagonists—beginning with the playful Polaroid self-snapshot as they begin their weekend—convey a clear sense of their mutual affection. They make decisions based on how those decisions will affect the other, and they verbally express their appreciation for their relationship to each other. When Louise agrees to stop at the night club and later, to pick up the hitchhiking J. D., she makes these decisions for Thelma, who never gets “to do stuff like this,” and wants to “really let [her] hair down.” When Harlan assaults Thelma, Louise rescues her, jeopardizing her own future. In a particularly tender gesture, Louise uses her scarf to clean Thelma's face after Harlan's blows have left her bloody and bruised, and assures her terrified friend that, “Everything's going to be fine.”

This is not to imply that the friendship between Thelma and Louise is flawless—they do become angry and yell at each other—but they quickly set aside their disagreements and anger in order to support each other and maintain their connection, even in the face of traumatic events such as Harlan's murder. Thelma and Louise share many of the characteristics in their friendship as those articulated by Arbuthnot and Seneca (1990) in their analysis of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

Their lives are inextricably and lovingly intertwined. They work together, sing and dance together, travel together. … We are rarely shown one on the screen without the other. They also defend each other in the face of outside critics.

(p. 120)

Further, like the friendship between Monroe and Russell, the connection shared by Thelma and Louise is free of “competitiveness, envy, and pettiness” (Arbuthnot and Seneca, p. 120). In both films, it is precisely the strength of the women's bond that represents such a strong threat to patriarchy (Arbuthnot & Seneca). The women take care of each other, exchanging the roles of protector and caretaker symmetrically; in other words, neither competes to be the one in charge, each assuming that role when necessary, when the other falters. Consider the scene when Louise checks them into a motel room after shooting Harlan so she can decide what to do next. A clearly stressed Thelma stretches out on the motel bed, and tells Louise, “Well, when you figure it out, just wake me up.” When Louise yells back—“You could help me try to figure it out!”—the women lash out at each other, and Thelma collapses into sobbing. At that point, Louise's anger is channeled into comforting and reassuring Thelma that she'll find a way to fix everything: “I'm sorry, I'm just not ready to go to jail yet, okay? Why don't you to out to the pool and take a swim or something. All right? Now, I'll figure out what to do.” Although Thelma's actions at the night club culminated in the murder, Louise is more concerned about her friend and finding a way out of their dilemma than she is with casting blame.

In a later scene, the roles are reversed. After Thelma gets “properly laid” and J. D. steals their getaway money, Louise collapses on the motel room floor and breaks into tears. Now Louise's anger at Thelma's naiveté is replaced with a sense of hopelessness and devastation viewers have not witnessed before from the “in charge” Louise. At this point, Thelma takes charge: “Louise, hey. Now you just listen to me, you hear me? Come on, stand up. Louise, just don't you worry about it,” Thelma assures her friend. The role reversals between the two women are further demonstrated as Thelma drags Louise to her feet and in subsequent scenes, drives Louise's car and robs convenience stores to pay for their flight to Mexico.

Blame and anger may enter their relationship with each new obstacle they face, but they are quickly replaced with concern and reassurances that no one is to blame—except perhaps men—for the desperate situations in which they find themselves. For example, toward the end of the film when the two women are being chased by dozens of law enforcement officers, Thelma says, “I know this whole thing is my fault. I know it is.” Despite Louise's earlier outburst after Harlan's death that, “If you weren't concerned with having so much fun we wouldn't be in trouble,” Louise now reassures Thelma: “Damnit Thelma, if there's one thing you should know by now, this wasn't your fault. None of this was your fault.”

Throughout the film, the female gaze and the connection between the two women are further evidenced through the affectionate way they look at each other. In fact, their intimate interactions illustrate Deborah Tannen's (1990) distinction between the conflicting anchoring gazes exhibited by women and men during conversations (p. 246): while women tend to anchor their gazes on each other's faces, a behavior that reflects a distinctly female gaze, men anchor their gazes outward, away from each other's faces (pp. 245-279). Even as the law enforcement authorities close in on Thelma and Louise and they recognize they are about to be apprehended, they continue to comfort each other and celebrate their friendship, as in this affectionate interaction:

You're a good friend.
You too, sweetie, the best. How do you like the vacation so far?
Both women laugh.
I guess I went a little crazy, huh?
No, you've always been a little crazy. This is just the first chance you've had to express yourself.

Finally, the intimate gaze the women share when they clasp hands and kiss each other fully on the lips before driving over the cliff mirrors the gaze they shared in the self-portrait snapshot they took as they began their journey. From start to finish, Thelma and Louise celebrate their friendship. Their choice to commit suicide together further confirms their commitment to each other at the same time as it denies men control over their lives: “When Thelma and Louise decide not to let a flock of police cars choose a fate for them, they are exultant. ‘Let's go,’ says Thelma. ‘Go!’” wrote Newsweek's Laura Shapiro (1991, p. 63). And Kathleen Murphy, writing for Film Comment, agreed: “As these splendid creatures choose—rather than accept—their fate, they kiss, mouth to mouth, clasp hands, and head into even higher country, celebrating that rarity in American fiction, a ‘holy marriage’ of females, transcending gender” (1991, p. 29).

Similar to Lorelei and Dorothy in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the men in the lives of Thelma and Louise “never convincingly appear as more important” to the women “than they are to each other” (Arbuthnot & Seneca, 1990, p. 123), and this representation of women's loyalty to each other is something with which women spectators can identify strongly. Indeed, Thelma and Louise deny a major patriarchal myth when they reject the notion that the only way a woman can live “happily ever after” is with the right man. Some would argue that this denial so challenges the patriarchal norm that the film's message must be negated, and hence the suicide ending, in which the women are “punished” for their resistance, and masculine control is reaffirmed. However, an appropriation of the male gaze leads to an oppositional reading, naming the suicide not as punishment of Thelma and Louise, nor as restoring patriarchal power, but as Thelma and Louise mocking sexism and resisting patriarchal domination by denying men control over their lives. As Mellencamp (1995) explained, the suicide is “heroic” (p. 151) because Thelma and Louise are “triumphant in death. … Death allows them to ‘keep on going.’ Life would have meant confinement, in prison or in marriage” (p. 150). Indeed, critic Linda McAlister (1991b) argued that the protagonists' leap off the Grand Canyon allows the women to achieve a profound liberation; and further, their final decision is a “stinging indictment of this society that the choice they make is the same and reasonable one” (p. 2). From this perspective, Thelma and Louise's decision to die together can be read as the final stage in feminist consciousness—positive action for change—both personally and societally.


Both female and male gazes may comprise a filmic text, but since Hollywood films have been dominated by male gazes, one result of female gazes that depict patriarchal resistance is a struggle among competing gazes (Arbuthnot and Seneca, 1990; Gamman, 1989). And Thelma & Louise is no exception: male objectification and patriarchal containment compete with the strategies of resistance in the film's narratives. However, Arbuthnot and Seneca's critique of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes demonstrated that it is precisely this “tension between male objectification of women, and women's resistance to that objectification”—in other words, the tension between female and male gazes—that opens film narratives to a feminist reading (p. 123). For instance, the narrative of Thelma & Louise implies that the primary reason the women leave for their weekend trip is to “teach Jimmy a lesson” for his failure to make a commitment to Louise. In fact, Thelma assures Louise that their trip will result in the commitment she wants: “Jimmy will come in off the road, you won't be there, he'll freak out and call you like a hundred thousand times, and Sunday night you'll call him back and by Monday, he'll be kissing the ground you walk on.” Louise replies, “Exactly.” As another example, Thelma has been dependent on a heterosexual relationship almost since puberty, having dated Darryl for four years before marrying him at age 18, and then staying in the abusive marriage for years. At first, Thelma enjoys the novelty of her flirtation with Harlan; and after spending the night with J. D., she tells him that if “he ever goes to Mexico he should look us up,” all of which seems to suggest that “heterosexual love is crucial for women” (Arbuthnot & Seneca, p. 122). However, in Thelma & Louise, the result of the tension between the film's strategies of patriarchal containment and resistance is similar to that found in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: neither strategy can fully obscure the other, but the conflict is so “thin that it scarcely threatens the text of female friendship” (Arbuthnot & Seneca, p. 122).

Consider the choices Thelma makes after the shooting. At any point until she robs her first convenience store, she could have gone to the police without fear of punishment for herself. She was the victim of the sexual assault, and not the one who pulled the trigger. If she had chosen this option, however, she would have betrayed Louise, leaving her friend to face the consequences of preventing Thelma's rape and killing Harlan. After the attempted rape, Thelma does call home to an empty house, but finding Darryl gone at 4 a.m. only solidifies her primary allegiance to Louise. For her part, Louise also could have chosen to confess to Jimmy and accept his marriage proposal. At that point, the women may have been able to formulate a self-defense argument acceptable to the police. Later, when Thelma asks Louise if she's going to make a deal so they can turn themselves in to the authorities, and Louise can return to marry Jimmy, Louise says, “Jimmy's not an option.” Likewise, Darryl and her former life with him are not options Thelma wants: “Something's crossed over in me and I can't go back. I mean, I just couldn't live.” Throughout the film, their friendship takes precedence over men, effectively subverting patriarchal containment: “It exalts the friendship between its heroines and places their intimate relationship squarely at the center of the narrative” (Hollinger, 1998, p. 120)

Even the fact that the film features two women protagonists in the male-dominated genre of “buddy films” challenges patriarchal construction, as does the plot's narrative development that precludes our protagonists from falling in love with men who might, in turn, rescue them. As Shapiro (1991) argued, “What triumphs in the end isn't guns or whisky [or men], it's their hard-won belief in themselves and the soaring victory that belief makes possible” (p. 63). The primacy of the women's connection further mocks patriarchy through its appropriation of the lyrics from Glenn Frey's (1991) song; when Frey sings—“You and I will always be together. From this day on you'll never be alone”—he's obviously singing to a woman. But in the film, these lyrics are heard at the precise times Thelma and Louise are reaffirming the depth of their loyalty to, and intimacy with, each other.

The narrative structure of Thelma & Louise also represents significant challenges to the typical media depictions of rape, and in turn, to the male gaze. Media rape narratives generally reinforce a hegemonic masculine ideology in which masculinity emerges “as the solution rather than the cause of the victimization of women through rape” (Cuklanz, 1998, p. 444). In other words, media rape narratives are not about “women's experiences with rape,” but rather become “stories of male power,” offering a media interpretation of “masculinity that could solve the crime, avenge the woman's pain and victimization, sympathize with her plight and nurture her through a difficult time” (Cuklanz, p. 445). Through its depiction of sexual assault as a crime in which no male spectator can “escape responsibility for the continuance of a rape culture that does not effectively prevent this heinous crime” (Hollinger, 1998, p. 123), Thelma & Louise transforms the male gaze inherent in rape narratives to a female gaze that actively resists patriarchal construction. Further, as a consciousness-raising narrative, the movie drives to “name the unnameable,” and to speak the “realities of women's lives” (Hogeland, 1998, p. 159). It should not be surprising, then, that Thelma & Louise has been cited by feminists to exemplify the “legitimacy of feminist anger, the disruptive possibilities of that anger's transformation into power, and this has been its greatest pleasure for feminist viewers” (Hogeland, p. 162).

Are Thelma and Louise feminist heroes? “Of course they're feminists,” argued Shapiro (1991), “but not because they have pistols tucked in their jeans. This is a movie about two women whose clasped hands are their most powerful weapon” (p. 63). McAlister (1991b) expressed no reservations, declaring Thelma & Louise a “remarkable existentialist feminist film” that “Simone de Beauvoir would love” (p. 1). Mellencamp (1995) concurred that Thelma and Louise are feminist heroes and argued that critics who charged the film represented a betrayal of feminism (e.g., Carlson, 1991) are misreading it. As Mellencamp explained, it was only after subsequent viewings of the film that she recognized the significance behind its early depictions of Thelma and Louise as women who “measured their lives and defined themselves by men's desire” (p. 149), and made “bungling and stupid narrative mistakes” (p. 148): “Only later in the film do Thelma and Louise, both working-class women, realize they can make choices” and their “happiness is not up to husbands, parents, or children. It is up to them” (p. 148). And it is precisely this change from “dependence on men to female independence” that transforms the film's narratives into an “inner journey into feminist self-awareness,” as spectators watch Thelma and Louise become “self-reliant and heroic rather than helpless and scared” (Mellencamp, p. 148).

Whether Thelma and Louise are feminists is a question that can be debated, and conflicting opinions on this point challenge the “idea that there should be one monolithic view about feminism,” hence forcing a recognition of the “plurality” of feminisms available to women (Gamman, 1989, p. 26). Regardless of our views of Thelma and Louise as feminists, the film clearly resonates with the many women spectators, film critics and feminist film scholars, precisely because Thelma & Louise provides women with narratives and female characters actively challenging patriarchal conventions rarely available in mainstream media.


The goal of my research was not to investigate the male gaze or the ways in which Thelma & Louise “affords pleasure, or denies pleasure to men” (Arbuthnot & Seneca, 1990, p. 123). Rather, my interest was in focusing “more centrally on our own experiences as female viewers than on the male viewer's experience,” following the dictum of Arbuthnot and Seneca that feminist film criticism needs to “move beyond the analysis of male pleasure in viewing classical narrative films, in order to destroy it, to an explanation of female pleasure, in order to enhance it” (p. 123). As the previous discussion has shown, there is a great deal about Thelma & Louise that enhances pleasure for women spectators: “Thelma & Louise encourages female spectators both to admire and to be inspired by their female characters” (Hollinger, 1998, p. 132). The female gazes structuring the movie's narratives encourage women to take “[p]leasure in feminist power” (Stacey, 1991, p. 148) and to identify with “the spectacle of women” (Willis, 1993, p. 125) depicted in roles that challenge the “traditional cinematic association of activity with masculinity” (Hollinger, p. 122).

Importantly, the female gazes represented in the film support the argument that feminist voices are not limited to avant garde films (Mulvey, 1975), but can be “articulated in the context of masculinist ideologies” that dominate mainstream Hollywood cinema (Gamman, 1989, p. 18), thus allowing mainstream films to “facilitate a dominant female gaze and a route whereby feminist meanings can be introduced in order to disturb the status quo” (Gamman, p. 12). Indeed, Ussher (1997) argued that Thelma & Louise represents “an explicit subversion of traditional representations of a narrow feminine role” (p. 125), a representation previously limited primarily to avant-garde feminist films and independent feminist filmmakers (Mellencamp, 1995; Ussher). Although alternative feminist films have played a significant role in paving the way for films such as Thelma & Louise (Ussher), feminist counter-cinema necessarily denies pleasure as a prerequisite for freedom (Mulvey, 1975), and consequently, these films fail to address women's “fascination with Hollywood films” (Kaplan, 1983, p. 33). As Kaplan explained, Arbuthnot and Seneca's (1990) reading of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a feminist text, “located a central and little-discussed issue, namely our need for feminist films that at once construct woman as spectator without offering the repressive identifications of Hollywood films and that satisfy our cravings for pleasure” (p. 33).

There are, however, broader societal implications than simply the appeal of Thelma & Louise as an example of a mainstream feminist-inspired film that offers pleasure to women spectators. The wider audience appeal enjoyed by Hollywood films over avant-garde productions is important in challenging the dominate patriarchal discourses inherent in the cinematic male gaze. John Fiske (1987) explained that “discourse is a language or system of representation that has developed socially in order to make and circulate a coherent set of meanings about an important topic area” (p. 14). As the “most politically implicated” contemporary female friendship film (Hollinger, 1998, p. 124), Thelma & Louise demonstrates the potential of mainstream cinema to challenge the socially constructed and circulated meanings of patriarchal discourse that deny women's voices and experiences: “Its political message encourages its female audience not only to enter into the controversy surrounding its reception, but also, and most significantly, to take a critical stance in regard to contemporary U.S. society and its treatment of its female members” (Hollinger, pp. 124-125).

Further, from the early days of films, female friendship films such as The Gay Sisters (1942) and the 1949 movies A Letter to Three Wives and A Woman's Secret, “developed almost exclusively into a socially conformist cinematic form that presents female bonding as a useful means of social integration, guiding women into acceptance of the existing social structure” (Hollinger, 1998, p. 208). Thus, this film genre did not represent a “threat to the way things are and therefore warranted no direct attacks” (Hollinger, p. 208). Then in 1991, Thelma & Louise did just the opposite, encouraging women to question and ultimately to reject the existing social order, consequently representing a significant threat to the patriarchal discourses dominating media and society: “Thelma & Louise stands alone as the only contemporary female friendship film that can be read as unrecuperatedly political” (Hollinger, p. 239). Indeed, Rapping (1994) asserted that the primary significance of Thelma & Louise resides with its ability to challenge the “longstanding assumptions of classic Hollywood genres, which have always reinforced the gender inequalities upon which this society depends” (p. 66).

Ussher (1997) cautioned that the “archetypal masculine gaze isn't a thing of the past,” and for “every Thelma & Louise with women living independent lives” there are films depicting women as “terrorized and assaulted, sex object and victim” (p. 130). However, films such as Thelma & Louise that disrupt the patriarchal power structure by effecting a “fissure in the representation of power itself” (Gamman, 1989, p. 15) and open the text to a feminist reading (Arbuthnot & Seneca, 1990), can serve as a model for future feminist filmmakers—who want their oppositional voices to reach mainstream audiences, thereby increasing the films' challenges to the limitations of patriarchal construction—and may encourage film scholars to explore ways in which film narratives afford pleasure to women spectators.


  1. For additional spectatorship research, see for example: Bobo (1988); Byars (1988); Ellsworth (1986); Gamman (1989); Gledhill, (1988, 1991); Griggers (1993); Mayne (1993); Pribram, (1988); Stacey (1991); Staiger (1992); and, Willis (1993).

  2. In her review of Fried Green Tomatoes, McAlister (1991a) relates the stages of feminist consciousness—denial, curiosity, expanding awareness, anger, rage, and positive action for change—to Evelyn's (Kathy Bates) personal growth in the film. Also see Hogeland's (1998) comparison of Thelma & Louise's text to consciousness-raising narratives (pp. 147-168).

  3. See for example: Burt (1980, 1991); Celis (1991); Halper (1993); Johnson & Jackson (1988); and, Malamuth & Check (1980).

  4. Research indicates that most women in American society fear sexual violence (Gordon & Riger, 1991), and one 1985 study found women under 35 feared being a victim of rape over fears of robbery, assault or even murder (Warr).

  5. For other negative critiques from male writers, see for example: Bruning (1991); Johnson (1991); Leo (1991); and, Novak (1991). Not all men reacted negatively; for positive film reviews, see for instance: Cosford (1991); and, Denby (1991).

  6. Khouri argued that her screenplay “isn't hostile toward men” (cited in Shapiro, 1991, p. 63), and responded to the criticism that the film presented negative images of men by suggesting: “If men don't like seeing themselves as caricatures, then imagine how women feel at the movies” (cited in Krupp, 1991, p. 142).


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Neil McDonald (review date April 2001)

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SOURCE: McDonald, Neil. “Dr. Lecter, I Presume.” Quadrant 45, no. 4 (April 2001): 59-62.

[In the following review, McDonald compares the novel Hannibal to Scott's film adaptation, noting that the film achieves a moral and dramatic complexity that is lacking in the novel.]

Filmmakers saving a major writer from betraying his own creation? Unbelievable! Not really, because this is what screenwriters David Mamet and Steve Zaillian and director Ridley Scott have done in Hannibal for Thomas Harris, the author of the original novel.

When the book was published in 1999 director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally—both of whom had won Oscars for Silence of the Lambs based on Harris's earlier Hannibal Lecter novel—took one look at the new work and bailed out of the planned sequel. So did Jodie Foster. It was not that Harris had written a turkey. Far from it, much of Hannibal is very good indeed, a combination of contemporary thriller and Jacobean tragedy with passages of near-cinematic writing that are a gift to any filmmaker. The problem was the resolution, where Clarice Starling, Harris's feisty heroine from Silence of the Lambs, becomes virtually the bride of Hannibal Lecter:

Hannibal Lecter, did your mother feed you at her breast?


Did you ever feel you had to relinquish the breast to Mischa? Did you ever feel you were required to give it up for her?

A beat.

I don't recall that, Clarice. If I gave it up I did it gladly.

Clarice Starling reached her cupped hand into the deep neckline of her gown and freed her breast, quickly peaky in the open air.

You don't have to give up this one, she said, looking always into his eyes. With her trigger finger she took warm Chateau d'Yquem from her mouth and a thick, sweet drop suspended from her nipple like a golden cabochon and trembled with her breathing.

He came swiftly from his chair to her, went on a knee before her chair, and bent to her coral and cream in the firelight his dark sleek head.

It really doesn't matter that Clarice is here a surrogate sister and possibly mother figure as well as bride and partner. In these last passages, which include the now notorious dinner party where Clarice and Hannibal dine off the living brain of the man who has destroyed Clarice's career at the FBI, Harris betrays much of what he has written in Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, the two earlier novels of the so-called Lecter trilogy.

This is a kind of betrayal of which only the finest writers are capable. Like all those lies Thackeray tells about the delicious Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair or Joseph Conrad abandoning the coolly sceptical Decoud to suicide in Nostromo. Not only don't we believe them but something infinitely precious has been lost to the works themselves.

I'm certain this is what Demme, Tally and Foster felt when they first read Hannibal. Harris's failure probably cut most deeply with Foster. Her embodiment of Clarice's vulnerability, compassion and heroism had helped make the film, for all its horror, a profoundly moral work. Certainly Foster and Hopkins had made Clarice's exchanges with brilliant serial killer Hannibal Lecter darkly ambivalent, but she could never have expected the ambivalence would be resolved quite like this or that the character of Clarice would be quite so degraded.

But with Harris entitled to $9 million for the screen rights alone, big money was at stake. So playwright-director David Mamet was brought in to work on the script and reportedly produced a 600-page first draft—a huge overrun in an industry where 200—page scripts are considered too long. Then Steve Zaillian was brought in to work on Mamet's draft. Zaillian's revision came in at a reasonably manageable 128 pages. This is the only version I have been able to see and while there are some lapses (sending Clarice off to become a private eye for former boss Jack Crawford is almost as bad as Harris's resolution) it is clear that between them Zaillian and Mamet create a powerful narrative that is remarkably true to the basic impulse of the original. At one stage Harris himself was called in and the formidable Ridley Scott also took a hand. We'll probably have to wait for the DVD's special features to find out who came up with what but the final resolution of the film is far truer to Harris's creation than anything the author wrote himself.

To understand how all this came about you have to go back to Dr Lecter's first appearance in Harris's 1981 novel Red Dragon. Here the good doctor plays very much a supporting role. FBI investigator Will Graham—haunted by his ability to re-enact the thoughts of the serial killers—goes to see Lecter in prison “to recapture the mindset” for a new case.

Have you seen blood in the moonlight, Will? It appears quite black. Of course, it keeps the distinctive sheen. If one were nude, say, it would be best to have outdoor privacy for that sort of thing. One must show some consideration for the neighbours, mmm?

You think the yard may be a factor when he selects the victims?

Oh yes, and there will be more victims of course. Let me keep the file, Will. I'll study it. When you get more files, I'd like to see them too. You can call me. On the rare occasions when my lawyer calls, they bring me a telephone … Would you like to give me your home number?


Do you know how you caught me, Will?

Goodbye Dr Lecter, you can leave messages for me at the number on the file.

Graham walked away.

Do you know how you caught me?

Graham was out of Lecter's sight now and he walked faster towards the steel door.

The reason you caught me is that WE'RE JUST ALIKE was the last thing Graham heard as the steel door closed behind him.

Here Lecter is fascinating but also repulsive—never more so than in Brian Cox's interpretation of the character in Michael Mann's film adaptation of Red DragonManhunter.

The director staged the encounter in an all-white prison cell that hints at Graham's own uncertain mental state while underscoring Lecter's insanity. As the doctor reads the file Graham has brought him the camera takes on the FBI man's perspective, panning over Lecter's possessions—the purple sink, the blue bindings and the bright yellow toothbrush—becoming, in Michael Mann's words, “a high resolution hyper-perception of reality”. Lecter has only two more scenes in the book and the film. For the rest Red Dragon and Manhunter focus on Graham's (William Petersen) hunt for the serial killer Francis Dolarhyde. On one level both film and novel are semi-documentaries. Harris emphasises the technology, the collection and sifting of evidence, that form the basis for Graham's attempts to probe the killer's psyche. Mann takes this a stage further employing cameraman David Prozoni's lenses like magnifying glasses to probe surfaces for insight into evidence and character. This results in a virtual celebration of new and not-so-new technology. Few characters in a modern film have used quite so many touch phones, computers, faxes, not to mention helicopters and special jets, but Mann never loses his characters. Close shots reveal the dawning of new respect in an Atlanta cop's eyes as Graham's suggestions uncover vital evidence. There is a darkly beautiful scene where Dolarhyde arranges for Reba (Joan Allen), his blind lover, to caress a drugged tiger. Here the close-ups of Allen and a real tiger evoke the tactile experience while a mid shot of Tom Noonan's chilling Dolarhyde hints at his veiled malignancy.

Mann does not create an equivalent to the internal monologues used in the novel to portray Dolarhyde's divided self. Instead the director employs colour and design. Bloodstains smeared over one victim's white bedroom in the words of the script “like a Jackson Pollock painting”, red counterpointed with green become part of the grotesque decor of Dolarhyde's house. Graham on the other hand is associated mainly with green—foliage, trees, a wall—plus the romantic blue flooding images of his lovemaking with Molly (Kim Greist). Good as Mann is here the film owes much to Harris and Red Dragon. The spare prose and taut dialogue of the original novel evoke the moral and physical horror without ever wallowing in the excesses. When the reader is taken into Dolarhyde's consciousness the prose remains detached and objective. There is understanding, compassion even, but never identification. Similarly, as with all the great horror directors, Mann allows the worst atrocities to take place in the viewers' minds. But Harris owes something to Mann also. In the book's final passages, Will Graham's quest for an end to the killing is partly lost. Manhunter on the other hand retains the balance between hunter and hunted. Extraordinary as Tom Noonan is as the monster, he is matched by William Petersen's haunted Graham. And by introducing Dolarhyde later in the film than Harris does in the novel, Mann is able to build up to the moment when the investigator discovers how the killer selects his victims and make it the climax of the film. The director also cuts the novel's convoluted feigned death and return of the serial killer in favour of a more spectacular confrontation between Graham and his quarry involving a mind-blowing crash to the rescue through a picture window and a full-scale shoot-out with a SWAT team.

In the American DVD release of Mann's director's cut this is now followed by a scene where, after killing Dolarhyde, Graham visits the family who were to be the monster's next victims, just to see that they are safe. This life-affirming sequence has no parallel in the novel but blends superbly with the closing scenes on the beach where Graham's own family is at last able to heal. A more optimistic ending than the bleakly indeterminate conclusion of the book but somehow true to the novel's basic impulses.

When released in 1986 Manhunter achieved a modest success, a success that was to be overshadowed four years later by Silence of the Lambs. But Michael Mann's film is a considerable achievement. William Petersen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Tom Noonan, may not be superstars but are every bit as good as Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and the rest in the later film. If anything Manhunter with its amalgamation of minimalist settings and almost baroque excesses of lighting and design is stylistically richer than Silence of the Lambs' combination of documentary and Gothic fact. Deservedly Michael Mann's film is acquiring cult status and long-overdue respect and admiration.

Silence of the Lambs is a much less complicated literary work than Red Dragon. Largely the events are seen from the perspective of FBI trainee Clarice Starling. Jack Crawford—Graham's manipulative boss from Red Dragon—sends her to interview Hannibal Lecter, ostensibly to build a profile of serial killers in captivity but really to secure his help to track down another murderer, Buffalo Bill, who skins his victims. All of this is handled by Harris in the documentary style of Red Dragon. Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) is a composite of three actual serial killers. The FBI procedure is accurate and Silence of the Lambs works superbly as a police procedural: but of course the core of the book is Clarice's encounters with Lecter. These passages are now only too familiar from the film version but all the dialogue comes straight from the novel. Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster's achievement was to take what Harris and screenwriter Ted Tally gave them and create a rich sub-text. The key exchange comes quite early in their first interview:

… his voice remains a pleasant purr.
DR Lecter:
You're so-o-o ambitious, aren't you … ? You know what you look like to me with your good bag and your cheap shoes, you look like a rube, a well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition has given you some length of bone but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, agent Starling? That accent you've tried so desperately to shed—pure West Virginia. What is your father dear? Is he a coalminer, does he stink of the lamp?
His every word strikes her like a small precise dart.
DR Lecter:
And, oh, how quickly those boys found you. All those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars while you could only dream of getting out, getting anywhere, yes, getting all the way to the F … B … I …
(shaken) You see a lot, Dr Lecter. But are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception on yourself? How about it? Look at yourself and write down the truth … or maybe you're afraid to.

Script and book give only the briefest indications of Starling's feelings. Indeed the script is actually more detailed but in Clarice's close-up you can see how Lecter's words have wounded her and what it takes for her to come back at him. Later, when Lecter forces Starling to tell him about her deepest fears in exchange for information that will help her save Gumb's latest victim, it is at once an emotional rape and the darkest of seductions, for as Lecter tells her at the end, it is the plight of the victim that drives her, the need to silence the cries of the slaughtered lambs that have haunted her since her childhood. Hopkins has compared Lecter to Shakespeare's villains like Richard III and Iago. In Silence of the Lambs it is as though Richard or Iago has come to the aid of the Duke of Clarence or Desdemona. It begins as a sadistic mindgame but at the end Lecter uncovers Starling's genuine goodness. Harris's final passages are not used by Demme and Tally but they epitomise much of the film's meaning.

Last he [Lecter] poured himself a glass of the excellent Batard-Montrachet and addressed Clarice Starling.

“Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming? … The lambs will stop for now but Clarice … you will have to earn it again and again, the blessed silence. Because it's the plight that drives you, seeing the plight, and the plight will not end, ever.”

Far to the east on the Chesapeake shore Orion stood high in the clear night above the big old house and a room where a fire is banked for the night, its light pulsing gently with the wind about the chimneys. On a large bed there are many quilts and on quilts and under them are several large dogs … But the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling and she sleeps deeply, sweetly in the silence of the lambs.

None of this would have worked on film if Hopkins and Foster had not given extraordinary performances. Hopkins plays the black comedy Harris gives the character for all its worth. “It was the best thing for him,” Lecter says of one of his victims. “His therapy was going nowhere.” But it was the actor who came up with the hissing intake of breath to describe the taste of the victim's liver. According to Hopkins the idea came from a moment in Bela Lugosi's performance as Dracula. Foster's Starling achieves the difficult feat of making an admirable character equally fascinating and of course it is she, using what Lecter has told her, who finally tracks down and kills the nauseating Jame Gumb. The confrontation in the cavernous cellar seems to be pure Gothic melodrama but the details of the horrors Starling discovers were based on the filmmaker's research at the FBI. Indeed aside from Clarice's encounters with Lecter, Silence of the Lambs is virtually a documentary. Film and book are also profoundly moral works in which genuinely good characters like Jack Crawford and Starling confront manifestations of evil. This is why Jonathon Demme, Ted Tally and Jodie Foster must have been unable to bring themselves to work on the film version of Hannibal, when the book had compromised all they and the author achieved in Silence of the Lambs.

Hannibal the novel began well enough with a shoot-out during which Starling is forced to kill a black woman with a child in her arms, followed by a tautly written scene of bureaucratic in-fighting set against the background of the FBI's blunders at Waco and the cocaine bust of the mayor of Washington. Harris has always been very good at portraying the moral evasions of the powerful. A passage in Silence of the Lambs, filmed but cut from the final release, portrays with deadly accuracy how the worst thing a Starling or a Crawford can do in an institution like the FBI (or any government department for that matter) is to be proved right when powerful officials have blundered.

After establishing that Starling's career at the FBI is going nowhere for this very reason, Harris introduces his new villain, the hideously deformed Mason Verger. Verger is one of Hannibal Lecter's two surviving victims. “He came over,” Mason tells Clarice, “and gave me the piece of glass and looked me in the eyes and suggested I might like to peel off my face with it. He let the dogs out, I fed them my face. It took a long time to get it all off they say. I don't remember. Dr Lecter broke my neck with the noose. They got my nose back when they pumped the dogs' stomachs at the animal shelter but the graft didn't take.”

Understandably Mason lives to revenge himself on Lecter who as everyone knows has escaped by the end of Silence of the Lambs. Verger is an even greater monster than Hannibal, a pedophile who debauched his own sister. He now has his minions collect the tears of anguished children for his martinis. Described like this it seems outrageously melodramatic but somehow Harris makes it work. Dominating the book are images of appetite and feeding. Verger's father was a meat packer who fattened his pigs with offal and fought the Humane Slaughter Act. Hannibal is a gourmet who eats his victims. Mason now plans to have Lecter eaten alive by wild pigs.

Counterpointing this is the hunt for Lecter himself, first in Florence, later in America. The Florence chapters are the best in the book. For the first time we enter Lecter's mind through a renaissance memory system whereby the doctor has trained himself to live in a palace of imagination. Harris doesn't dwell on this for long. Soon we are absorbed in the attempt by the corrupt detective Pazzi to trap Lecter for Mason Verger. Here Hannibal's adversaries are so repulsive the reader thoroughly enjoys the spectacle when Lecter literally cuts his way out of the trap. Well executed as this is, somehow Harris loses Clarice Starling and with her the whole morality of the Lecter tale. It is totally in character once Hannibal is captured by the loathsome Verger that she should try to save him, and equally in character that Lecter should rescue her, but Clarice's drugged complicity in the scene where they dine off the living brain of the slimy official who has destroyed her career fatally compromises not just Hannibal but the whole trilogy. Certainly as a dramatic and literary device the dinner party is perfectly valid. Titus Andronicus and 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore contain similar and worse scenes. But in the process Harris destroys Clarice and with it the integrity of the work itself.

Fortunately for Harris and perhaps American crime fiction, Mamet, Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian have come to the rescue. Ridley Scott makes the most of the opening shoot-out and Starling's clash with the Washington cop but is at his best in capturing the beauty and decay of the scenes in Florence. Clarice (Julianne Moore) is brought triumphantly back into the main narrative. As Pazzi tries to trap Lecter in Florence, Starling is tracking their movements from America. We still have the great moment when she rescues Lecter from the wild boars and is herself carried to safety by the doctor after the shoot-out. In Scott's hands the dinner is still grotesque and darkly funny but no longer is Clarice an accomplice. Drawn again to the plight of a victim, however contemptible, she tries once again to buy a life from Lecter with information. Then Clarice tries to hold the doctor by handcuffing him to her. “This is going to hurt,” says Lecter, picking up a meat cleaver. Clarice screams then we cut to an unharmed Starling on a river bank trying to see how Lecter has escaped and we realise that rather than harm her, Hannibal has hacked off his own hand. Clarice now faces the realisation that the man who cares and understands her more than anyone else and will literally do anything for her is also a monster.

Scott, Mamet and Zaillian achieve in Hannibal the film the moral and dramatic complexity that eluded Harris in the novel. The film is a visual delight, contemporary film noir at its best. Hopkins reprises Hannibal with aplomb making the most of Harris's dark humour without ever letting us forget the character's cruelty. Julianne Moore as Clarice is a worthy successor to Jodie Foster. It is essentially the same character, older, wiser, more melancholy, with the authority and stillness of screen heroes of the past like Gary Cooper or the young John Wayne. Gary Oldman plays Verger with gusto and Ray Liotta makes a suitably despicable bureaucrat who doubtless will remain in the establishment even after losing part of his brain to Lecter's appetite.

Since its release Hannibal has had its MA classification upgraded to an R after an appeal from Queensland. Here I suspect the Appeals Board were reviewing the Hannibal phenomenon or perhaps the book rather than what Ridley Scott put on the screen. For me there is more genuine relish for cruelty in Quills than in the whole Hannibal trilogy combined and unlike Hannibal,Quills evades almost all the issues it poses. It may be a fictional representation of de Sade but you should at least get what he wrote right. This was not just straight pornography with perhaps an occasional reference to ripping out someone's tongue; de Sade wrote catalogues of cruelty and mutilation, yet when confronted with the opportunity of really practising what he wrote the man recoiled. De Sade was dismissed as a judge of the Revolutionary Tribunal for excessive leniency. So to have him relishing a real beheading as in the opening sequence of Quills is a distortion of the whole relationship between art and reality in de Sade's life and work. The Marquis may have been at worst a brutal sexual abuser but he declined to be a mass murderer. Quills is a brilliant film but it celebrates a dangerous sadomasochism and distort morality and history. Hannibal the movie is a profoundly moral work that affirms that the very worst of us is capable of redemption. It is a message we are familiar with from great tragedy. The writers and directors of the Lecter trilogy have now made it part of popular culture.

David Thomson (essay date April 2001)

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SOURCE: Thomson, David. “The Riddler Has His Day.” Sight and Sound 11, no. 4 (April 2001): 19-21.

[In the following essay, Thomson discusses Scott's major strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker, focusing particularly on Hannibal.]

In a recent interview for American television's 60 Minutes, Ridley Scott was about as enthusiastic as his gruff, laconic manner (and advanced age) would allow. He confessed that he was having a tremendous time, better than ever, getting up every morning to make movies. Could there be anything more fun in life? In fact, the man is 61; in effect, he seemed half that age. Is that the secret to carrying on in his very tricky business with his energy and panache—and with such pleasing results? Or are we observing a medium that promotes survival if a man acts half his age? And never gives a hint of that betraying defect—growing up—which is the one disqualification worse than growing old?

As one surveys the American film scene, it's hard to imagine that we will find ourselves celebrating 60-year-olds a decade or so from now. Age, experience and maturity are already anathemas; it can't be long before they cease to exist. People will remember Robert Altman as the last of an aberrant strain. More and more, the old are expected to behave like restless colts, or get out of sight. So it's quite remarkable to see the brindled veteran from South Shields rising to what is clearly a fresh peak, with Gladiator and Hannibal near-concurrent hits.

But don't ask too many awkward questions about how other people are faring in Hollywood as they reach Scott's age. Sixty is the marker looming up for (or already heavy on the shoulders of) Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, De Palma, Schrader, Bogdanovich and Friedkin. The movie brats are being urged aside by the sheer rampant callowness of so many nerdy new waves. It's easier to recognise the historical perspective that said that any filmmaker working past 60 had better be very strong, very determined or blessed with something like rare insight. Hitchcock was that age, more or less, when he made Psycho and The Birds—but it's an open question whether these were adult films or those of an old man trying to act young. Hawks was 62 when he did Rio Bravo. After 60, Huston made Fat City,The Man Who Would Be King and Wise Blood. Fritz Lang would do The Big Heat at 62. Sixtysomething Wilder did The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; Fuller made The Big Red One and White Dog.

Still, I wonder whether those films weren't also green-lit by guys their age. Today, the decision and the funds depend on 35-year-olds who have likely never seen Rio Bravo or Fat City. Add a footnote: Max Ophuls, Murnau and Lubitsch didn't live to see 60, while Preston Sturges died at that very age after years of being adrift and after a directing fling of less than a decade—if one omits Les Carnets du Major Thompson. In short, are we asking too much to expect that anyone spends a career, or even a life, in film? Isn't there time off for good behaviour?

And Ridley Scott? Well, I'm writing a few days after Hannibal opened in the US. The reviews were mixed, but it's reckoned the film earned $58 million in its first weekend—only The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace have beaten that, and one would like to hope that rather more of their customers were innocent babes (an American marketing concept) than parents allowed to see Dr Lecter's cookery class. Above and beyond that, Gladiator—which amassed $190 million in 2000 alone—has raked in 12 Oscar nominations, including best picture, directing, script and actor.

Ridley Scott has not yet won a thing. Indeed, his lone nomination hitherto—for directing Thelma & Louise (1991)—lost to Jonathan Demme for The Silence of the Lambs. This is the moment to stress—without so much as a trace of guilt—how much I like Ridley Scott's work. Even the sillier projects—such as G.I. Jane (1997) and Someone to Watch over Me (1987)—are made with relish and a boy's delight in the surface prettiness of things (you could even say that Someone is about falling in love with an apartment). I'm never bored or bewildered by Scott (OK—1992's 1492: Conquest of Paradise gets very close), in the same way that for a good 10 years or so one could count on Michael Curtiz to be entertaining. Don't regard that remark as patronising—just look at The Adventures of Robin Hood,Angels with Dirty Faces,The Sea Hawk,Yankee Doodle Dandy,Casablanca,Mildred Pierce and The Unsuspected some weekend and recognise the sheer fluency and movie-ish oomph of an old pro. Curtiz directed those seven films in a 10-years span from 1938 in which he made 27 pictures altogether. Scott, so far, in 25 years has made 12.

What I'm trying to say is that there's no shame if Ridley Scott is only as good or as interesting as Michael Curtiz—he simply doesn't get the practice (or live in the same context of competition). That's exactly why I like Hannibal more than some people do. It's a very cunning, very adroit retreat—away from impossible horror and camp mockery, towards entertainment—to ensure that a sequel stays watchable instead of advancing down one of the several crazy (and hideous) dead-ends available. If half the stories of its different directions along the way are true—with two strong writers (if you'll excuse that term) and a narrative commercial/aesthetic quandary as to whether Jodie Foster would do the picture (or it could be made right for her)—then Scott deserves all the gratitude of those who hired him. He brought the movie in. It works. It's smart, good-looking, sexy, fun.

But if you took the Demme film seriously, and have ever regarded the Thomas Harris books in that way (and by “seriously” I mean as if they were receptacles for intelligence, ideas and concentrated argument), then Hannibal is to be regretted. I'm more relieved than hurt because I thought The Silence of the Lambs was a collection of excruciating tricks unworthy of Jonathan Demme and essentially dependent on torture, cruelty and putting demented behaviour at the heart of the story. Demme was too good to spare us the pain; and the genre and the medium were too greedy to by-pass it. Lambs was an ordeal to watch and it was harder than ever to suppose that its gouging impact might not disturb fragile, damaged or already dangerous minds—I'm thinking of the kind of people one meets at the movies these days.

No, I'm not saying that Lambs might have been cut, censored or banned—no matter that not too many years earlier no one would have dreamed of making it. Censorship is a more reliable evil than the chance of a movie inspiring some unsteady mind. But if you don't think that's a risk Lambs takes—with nothing else of a compensatory nature—then I think you're kidding yourself and adding to the peril.

Of course, Hannibal is camp, and not just cooked but marinaded first—whereas Lambs was raw and terrifying. I give thanks for that relief, and would only note in passing how far it illustrates a dire problem for mainstream narrative cinema: that the story that worked on its own terms, that held its own reality, yesterday, becomes self-parody tomorrow. It's not just that you couldn't do Casablanca or Mildred Pierce now without making them pastiche. It is, literally, that Hannibal Lecter has become such a household joke that he can't be dreadful again. It seems clear that Anthony Hopkins and Scott saw that, and planned accordingly. That's how the movie was saved. But don't forget how surely this built-in slope is destroying all the main forms of narrative. Talk to children and teenagers today: they believe that all movies are innately silly, self-mocking and ironic. They no longer hear, feel or see a natural gravity—or the chance of it—in movies.

So Scott turned Hopkins loose after a decade in which the actor had had to ‘do’ Lecter for every boy, dog and talk show he encountered—while finding that sometimes they did the doctor better themselves. So Lecter now is Capote-ish, large enough for cloaks and Borsalino hats, and capacious enough as aesthete, perfectionist and scholarly scold for his disdain to extend over the rainbow. He is the kind of deliciously wicked uncle Clifton Webb promised as Waldo Lydecker in Laura. As fruity as summer pudding. Is the character gay? Well, not in any sense that would alarm audiences or befuddle political correctness. But by the code of, say, the 40s—yes, indeedy.

What's clever about this smuggled perfume is the fragrance it brings to Lecter's feeling—that sniff he gave her once—for Clarice. Demme grasped that straw, and it was alarming 10 years ago that Lecter had smelled out something Starling didn't yet know: that she was sexed. What made that thrilling, or menacing, was Jodie Foster's placing of agent Clarice Starling in a sexual out-of-bounds. Her FBI woman was so very numb and unaware, even if she was of legal age. It was when Lecter looked at her that for the first time she got an inkling of what sex could mean. The rest of the world dreamed of cannibalism, but Foster's eyes widened with the sudden vision of cunnilingus. No, not even the vision—the sensation.

I don't know what happened on the road to Hannibal. Maybe Ms Foster the actress prevaricated. Maybe she thought to herself that if they needed her they'd have to pay a fortune beyond even producer Dino de Laurentiis' reach. Or maybe she was playing with herself, because something of the Clarice-Lecter intrigue had really shocked and horrified her. Perhaps she guessed that the outrage would turn camp, and counted herself out; she's smart enough to know how limited her humour is on screen.

So Scott went another way—towards an older, more sexually experienced woman. Julianne Moore looks like a handsome hippy 40; she also looks and reacts like a woman with few fears or illusions left about men. In becoming isolated at the FBI because of her professionalism, even her perfectionism (the thing she really shares with Lecter), she's evidently had enough bad affairs to prefer the company of her computer. But Moore saw the old movie, understood the flicker of attraction, and knows Lecter will lead her to the dance. And she's drawn by the prospect, just the chance, of being eaten.

Looked at that way (I could find no other), Hannibal is sexy, dirty, naughty, funny and knowing. Indeed, it has enough to let you notice that Lecter and Clarice are a cartoon version of Humbert and Lolita. It's not enough to make the film intelligent or interesting—and Nabokov's novel is all of that. But it keeps a two-hour picture engaging. The laughs and the gotchas are well paced, and it would take a very earnest soul not to be tickled by the hair-raising act that befalls Ray Liotta. Was there ever a cockier look so oblivious to things happening upstairs?

Then there is Italy, or Florence, which Scott does with the empty flourish he has commanded all his career—as if the settings were ready to be eaten. In this instance there could be a vein of comedy in that, a kind of scenery-chewing hungry tic in Hopkins so he can't pass a quattrocento throw cushion without having a nibble. Long ago, in that first, very arresting picture The Duellists (1977), Scott showed his total immersion in the visual language of advertising. Indeed, I have seen no evidence since that his notion of beauty extends one inch beyond the urge to depict landscape, buildings, furniture, clothes—come to that, anything—as if it was purchasable. And so in The Duellists, just as one was marvelling at the inane, implacable bond of honour and torment that would forever tie Harvey Keitel to Keith Carradine, there was always the intense but irrelevant urge to get oneself a property in the Dordogne.

Let me try to be more precise, and properly angry, about this. The look of advertising is meant to be ravishing and seductive; it is, if you are persuaded by such words, handsome, spectacular, lush, elegant … rich, expensive, valuable, luxurious, edible. It is not beautiful, for the plain reason that such eye-pleasing attributes as form, balance, chiaroscuro, depth of focus, harmony of colour and so on are all absolutely poisoned by the function of advertising—to make us envious or insecure about not having this golden thing. So when you look at The Duellists you want that magic-hour location, whereas when you look at Renoir's Partie de campagne you feel the interaction of human nature and nature itself and thus the seasonal round in which all living things must change and wither. It's the difference between a sense of possession and an admission of mortality, or tragedy (for nothing, truly, is possessed for long).

We know very well that Ridley Scott and his brother Tony have had a commercials company for years. Those are details on a professional résumé, and enough to indicate the lamentable thrust of their art-school training. That's their choice, and they're welcome to it. It has surely added to their fortune. But the movies belong to all of us, and someone needs to insist that there's an oceanic gap between the beauty to be found in Renoir, Fritz Lang, Antonioni, Nicholas Ray and Ophuls and the modern lacquer that's glibly described as “beautiful photography”. Indeed, granted the advances in technology available to photography nowadays, the majority of cinematography we see deserves to be assailed as slick, lazy, anonymous and “lush” compared with the movie styles of the 40s. “Beautifully photographed” is a term that merges characterless proficiency with the kind of buying eye that so undermines Ridley Scott as an artist. For the ‘beauty’ in Renoir, Antonioni and the others is not just a way of seeing. It's a way of feeling about nature, structure and the lives led in those settings. It's organic, whereas Scott's eye is a decorative coverlet draped over a world the director doesn't trouble to probe.

Scott's cheery ignorance reminds me of an occasion, years ago, when I taught John Berger's Ways of Seeing in an introductory course on film, or looking at the world. Ways of Seeing was the book that came from a television series in which Berger attempted to analyse the ideologies (or the lack thereof) in modern notions of seeing and attractiveness. I discussed his annihilation of advertising, and I think—with the advantage of his examples—I made a decent job of it. But at the close of the lecture, a student came up to thank me. Prior to that day, he said, he had felt lost and aimless, uncertain what to do with his life. Now the could had moved aside. Sun filled his face. He would go into advertising. I'm sure he's there now, with every right and reason to reckon he's one of the élite shaping the world's understanding of itself.

And if it strikes you that Gladiator, say, is beautiful—as opposed to just burnished, collectible and in fine condition—so be it. I found Gladiator a sumptuously empty film. Monotonous in plot, muddled in action and daft in its ending, it was determined to knock out the eye while neglecting the mind. It was ‘about’ nothing except a set of clichés of what Rome was like. But it has 12 Oscar nominations and a patina that normally requires centuries of slavery. It's not a film about Rome, but a wallowing in the Roman look.

All too often such disastrous ‘stylishness’ besets Ridley Scott. Even what I take to be his best and most interesting pictures—Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982)—are as much concerned with the design of their future places as with the quality of their people. Scott has an escape clause there: the more our world adopts his code of beauty, the less human personality will mean—so the intriguing diminution of human character in these two movies fits with the look of things, and especially their mannered shabbiness. Whether that was intended or comes as accidental bonus, you must decide. Whatever the answer, Scott's facile eye is easier to take with imaginary landscapes or decor, so there's something both magical and sinister in the baroque dankness of the future Los Angeles and the fossilised orgy of the dead planet where the alien lurks.

Twice—with Ian Holm in Alien and Sean Young in Blade Runner—Scott handled the fascination and pathos of a humanoid not quite all there, yet seeming to lead the way for the rest of the ‘full’ humans who were already enervated or drained. I've never been convinced that Scott is actually the feminist he's credited as, but still he judged the maturing of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien very well. Yet it seemed typical, at the end, that he saw no reason not to titillate us with Weaver in her sketchy (designer) underwear while also allowing the large intellectual prospect that the alien had fallen for her character. Alien is a very tidy, enclosed study in claustrophobia (it ends in the safety of a sleeping tube), and a satisfying film about a heroine in distress. But Scott deserves more praise because he had felt out the ominous sexual charge of the series to come, and captured the ambiguity of loneliness in space.

To argue that Scott sometimes neglects people in his enthusiasm for ‘cinema’ or entertainment—that he's more interested in shooting things than in revealing depths—is rather as if someone were spoilsport enough to notice that despite the sweet movie-esque coherence of Casablanca, its attitude to people is adolescent and superficial and thousands of miles away from real war and suffering. Was the war ever quite so much fun? And there's always been a trend in film criticism eager to say that doesn't matter. The same enthusiasm saw the real relief of Casablanca as the film opened and declared with wide-eyed innocence—the same state of mind ready to think Paul Henreid has been in a concentration camp as opposed to a country club—that surely films did matter and touch history. Whereas, the ‘reality’ of Casablanca is the story of so many strange refugees—with Conrad Veidt and Dalio the real, heroic victims—gathering together under the warm Warner lights to make a romance. Thus the monstrous villain and the droll sidekick were actually actors who had been deprived of their artistic heritage—and in the case of Dalio that world was one of the finest ever known.

All I am trying to suggest here is that Ridley Scott makes romances—and, for myself, I enjoy them very much, at the level I do the best films of Michael Curtiz. His actual unawareness of human depth is regularly masked by his very acute casting instinct. Remember, long ago, that he guessed what Sigourney Weaver might become—saw not just that she was pretty and smart, but tall, lofty, a touch aloof and chilly, with the seed of truculence, like a young woman raised by the military. He knew that in casting such antithetical figures as Keitel and Carradine (the hipster and the obsessive), he might be home already. He relaxed Geena Davis, he discovered Brad Pitt, he had a rapport with Ian Holm, he felt the pain in John Hurt and knew what might be causing it, he knew where Jeff Bridges' rather mortified heroic nature could be found. He casts very well indeed, and reminds us of the old Hollywood adage: if you cast well, you can leave the actors to it.

But it is up to us—I mean the very small resistance movement ready to read or write about film—to argue that this is not enough. In proposing the equality of Ridley Scott and Michael Curtiz, I am seeking to draw our attention to how little of a subject we have left.

Kim Newman (review date April 2001)

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SOURCE: Newman, Kim. Review of Hannibal, by Ridley Scott. Sight and Sound 11, no. 4 (April 2001): 48-9.

[In the following review, Newman offers a negative assessment of Hannibal, arguing that the plot is not compelling and the characters are underdeveloped.]

Ten years after the consultations with serial killer Hannibal Lecter that led to triumph over murderer Jame Gumb, FBI agent Clarice Starling is involved with a bungled shoot-out that leaves five dead [in Hannibal]. Paul Krendler, Clarice's long-time enemy in the bureau, gains leverage over her as she is blamed for the operation. Wealthy paedophile Mason Verger, disfigured by Hannibal, is buying evidence—and law-enforcement officials, including Krendler—in the hope of taking revenge on his mutilator. Hannibal, on the point of being appointed chief librarian in an archive in Florence, writes a letter of sympathy to Clarice, who works on a scent on the paper to track him down.

Florentine cop Pazzi, investigating the death of the academic whose job Hannibal is after, is prompted by the FBI's request for surveillance tapes from a local perfumerie to identify the fugitive. Learning of the huge reward Verger is offering, Pazzi sets out to trap Hannibal, only for the killer to execute him in the same manner as Pazzi's ancestor, who assassinated Juliano de Medici, was despatched. Clarice, who had warned Pazzi not to try to capture Hannibal on his own, continues to work on the case, despite the persecution of Krendler, and becomes aware that Hannibal has returned to the US. Minions staking out Clarice's home catch Hannibal after he has visited, spiriting him away to an estate where Verger intends to feed him to giant pigs. Clarice is wounded rescuing Hannibal; Hannibal carries her off after encouraging Cordell, Verger's doctor, to tip his patient to the pigs. Clarice wakes up at Krendler's summer home, where Hannibal serves Krendler's brain for dinner, trying to seduce her into his lifestyle. Clarice traps Hannibal, but he escapes.

(Editor's note: the following review gives away the film's ending.) Thomas Harris has now written three novels featuring genius and cannibal gourmet Hannibal Lecter: Red Dragon (1981), The Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Hannibal (1999). The earlier novels were filmed by Michael Mann (Manhunter, 1986) and Jonathan Demme (1991), first with Brian Cox, then with Anthony Hopkins (who returns here) as the character who has gradually come out of his cell and become dominant in the overarching narrative that encompasses all three books and their film versions.

One of the strengths of The Silence of the Lambs as a novel was that, although essentially a redraft of the plot of Red Dragon, it didn't seem like a sequel. Similarly, since Manhunter was a slow-building cult effort, Demme's film has rarely been considered a sequel to it. Contrariwise, one of the weaknesses of Hannibal, as novel and as film, is that it can only be considered a sequel, and indeed some aspects of the novel—the writing-out, for instance, of a love interest for FBI agent Clarice Starling established in the Lambs book but not the movie—suggest Harris was delivering a follow-up to the film of The Silence of the Lambs rather than to his earlier book. Ridley Scott's adaptation of Hannibal, which comes from Manhunter producer Dino De Laurentiis, whose original deal gives him first refusal on any novel featuring the character, is a further shift in this direction, retaining Hopkins for what is now the star role, but acceptably substituting Julianne Moore for Jodie Foster as Starling, to the extent of rerecording some of the Starling-Lecter interviews with Moore doing her own take on Foster's elocutionised cracker accent.

The major change, which perhaps marks a mutation from series into franchise, is that Hannibal Lecter moves centre stage. In earlier incarnations, he was incarcerated, exerting influence on the outside world and flirting with FBI agents; here, he is at large and at something of a loose end. Though he kills people who get in his way, he has discontinued the serial murders of the “free-range rude” hinted at in the earlier stories. This Hannibal is almost a heroic vigilante, only seeing off people who deserve it, and doing Clarice the favour of making a stir-fry of her office rival's brain as a Fourth of July treat which seems bound to be remembered as this film's most gruesome moment. A problem of this approach, especially with an ending altered but not much improved from the novel's controversial finish (in which Clarice and Hannibal become a couple), is that the script suffers from the familiar marking-time plotting common among middling series entries. There is much running around and new characters are brought on and killed off, but the fade-out leaves the protagonists exactly where they were at the beginning, with only a few emotional and physical scars to indicate any sense of narrative progression.

Working with a blue-grey palette very like Demme's, director Ridley Scott manages to find his own way into Harris' world, and his ad-man's love of animal, especially bird, images seizes upon that vein of the novel. From his brother Tony's repertoire, notably The Hunger, Scott takes a lot of fluttering birds and background classical music, with Hannibal characterising Starling (the name is enough, surely) as a “diving pigeon”. The third major character is a silent-movie grotesque, Mason Verger, a combination of Phantom of the Opera and Bond villain who was once persuaded by Lecter to cut off his own face and feed it to the dog and who relishes his scheme to get even by feeding his tormentor to anthropophagus boars (wonderfully excessive beasts). Gary Oldman, uncredited at the outset like Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931), is given a pig's snout-like deformed face and made to be the most purely despicable character in the series to date, whose crimes and bad manners have so offended Lecter that he seems to act as an instrument of cosmic justice in punishing him. A fine scene, played to perfection by Hopkins, has Lecter—who has never laid a hand on Verger—persuade a quivering doctor to shove Verger into the pig pit by offering to take the credit for the killing.

The general lopsidedness of Hannibal as novel and film is shown by the way the story clumps around the world. The Florence section sets up the interestingly shaded cop Pazzi—nagged into corruption by his wife's insistence he gets good tickets for the opera—as a new opponent for Hannibal in barbed verbal exchanges that draw on the city's twinned traditions of art and violence. But Starling, who is supposedly providing our viewpoint on the events, never makes it to Italy, and her storyline stops dead while Scott stages an elegant, operatic dance of seduction that pays off with Pazzi's gruesome defenestration. When Hannibal is back in America, the plot turns in on itself, makes a knot and finally disappears. By downplaying the police procedural aspects so strong in the earlier films, this becomes a simple grand guignol tale of thwarted revenge, and severely limits the directions in which its heroine can go. If the film series is to continue, it may well be time to summon Will Graham, the hero of Red Dragon/Manhunter, who has no patience with Hannibal's charm and can still match his darkness with enough daring to bring the supervillain down.

Andrew Stephen (review date 11 February 2002)

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SOURCE: Stephen, Andrew. “War Comes Home.” New Statesman 131, no. 4574 (11 February 2002): 22-3.

[In the following review, Stephen criticizes Black Hawk Down for feeding into many dangerous American myths about foreign policy and military intervention.]

Even going to the movies is different here in the US nowadays. Waiting for the main film to begin last Monday, I watched two ads for soon-to-be-released films with gung-ho US militaristic themes. Then followed the silent invocation “God Bless America”, in appropriate colours, flashed up in huge letters on the screen. It reminded me of Fox Television's coverage of the Superbowl the day before: not only was there a staggering amount of patriotic schmaltz beforehand, but once the game was under way, statistics were presented by a frequently repeated little series of automated logos starting with what appeared to be a US soldier pressing a button.

It's all enough to make one feel very much a foreigner in America these days.

But back to the movie I went to see. It was the $90m blockbuster called Black Hawk Down—the chic film to see here at the moment (Dick Cheney, never in military service himself, held a private and hitherto unpublicised screening for friends), and one that made more than $60m in its first fortnight. It lasts 143 minutes, the vast majority of which are taken up by bombs, bullets, grenades, blood and body parts—supposedly portraying the American fiasco in Mogadishu on 3 October 1993, which left 18 US soldiers and thousands of Somalis (yes, thousands, not the 500 often quoted as the official US estimate) dead. If ever a film glories in slaughter, this is it; presumably the director, the ex-BBC man Ridley Scott, knew exactly what he was doing in his depiction of noble, all-American (and almost entirely white) boys pitted against countless anonymous, evil black Somalis, Bizarrely, he dedicated the film to his late mother.

The story behind its release, though, is fascinating. It was filmed in Morocco rather than Somalia, and long before 11 September. But last November, one of President Bush's closest aides, Karl Rove, flew to Los Angeles to meet more than 40 Hollywood executives in the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills; the purpose of his trip was to ask Hollywood moguls to make films “showing the heroism of American armed forces”. Black Hawk Down was not scheduled for release until next month, but that date was then brought forward to 28 December. The film has, as a postscript, a line saying that President Clinton pulled US troops out of Somalia two weeks after what was, in reality, a tragically ham-fisted and bungled attempt by the high-tech US military to arrest two Somali warlords. That postscript will, I'm sure, mean that millions of Americans leave cinemas saying “And a damned good thing, too”. (Or, in the words of a New York Times columnist last Tuesday: “You leave the theater, heart pounding, wanting to pull out a machinegun and mow down crowds of Somalis.”)

But while the film was made before 11 September, its released version was not then finalised. In the version completed after 11 September, there was another postscript that finally got to the heart of the matter: it drew a connection between the American readiness to withdraw immediately after one horrible day in Somalia, and the cause of the 11 September atrocities. But that, post-11 September, was then deemed anathema for American audiences after trial shows, and was duly cut out: in the current climate of intolerance of dissidence, such a postscript would have been deemed so un-American that the film would doubtless have been boycotted.

Pulling in such huge audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, the filmmakers presumably do not mind caving in, in this way, to the new McCarthyite intolerance. Rove promised producers making “patriotic” films the co-operation and use of US military facilities and personnel; but even before 11 September, such aid was already available to the makers of Black Hawk Down, as 40 US soldiers guarded the sets in Morocco (they were in plain clothes, the actors playing the Rangers in fatigues: a cause of much confusion). This year, at least three militaristic films will come out.

The tragedy of Black Hawk Down is that it feeds in to so many dangerous current American myths: that the UN (which, significantly, Bush did not mention in his State of the Union address) is useless, and that valiant American attempts to “nation build” are doomed.

The movie starts with gunners in a US helicopter refused permission by their HQ to open fire on the warlords mowing down innocent Somalis scrambling for food aid—because of a stifling UN rule that they had to be fired on first before they could open fire themselves. By this time, in real life, 300,000 Somalis had died from hunger: the good ol US could have done something about it, was the film's first message, but were hamstrung by UN bureaucracy. Then the Pakistani UN peacekeepers in Mogadishu are portrayed as ineffectual little twits; again, in reality vastly more Pakistani (and Nigerian) UN peacekeepers than Americans were killed in Somalia.

In real life, Clinton's abrupt withdrawal from Somalia after CNN showed the bodies of US soldiers being paraded around the Mogadishu ruins confirmed the view of one Osama Bin Laden: that Americans will not tolerate any serious numbers of military casualties (18 being the biggest military death toll for the US army since Vietnam). In that way, the postscript that never appeared in the final version of Black Hawk Down hit the nail on the head: during the complacent Clinton era, the US came to the collective view that not one single American life is worth a noble cause.

So these are the lessons Americans take from their blockbuster movie in 2002: that to try to help restore Afghanistan to some semblance of normality is not a job for Americans (leave it to the useless UN) and is not worth one American life. This is the underlying reason why British military assistance was largely spurned by the US during the bombing of Afghanistan: the Brits simply got in the way. But they are now welcome to be “peacekeepers” (chuckle, chuckle) in Afghanistan: Hamid Karzai, the country's new leader, has pleaded personally to Bush for significant numbers of US soldiers, but he now even has to rely on the British Special Boat Service for his own personal protection. Bush has reversed his campaign position on having absolutely nil “nation building”: he has now conceded that the US will play some kind of role in rebuilding Afghanistan.

Yet the audiences (including Cheney's private one, we can safely presume) pour out of Black Hawk Down convinced that, after Afghanistan's pulverisation by the US, any attempt to provide significant aid to rebuild the ruins would only fruitlessly risk American lives.

The drama and clever visual and aural effects drown out historical perspective: that precisely by abandoning poor and wrecked countries such as Afghanistan or Somalia, the US stores up festering resentment against it further down the road. Somalia was abandoned by the US, amid much resentment by the suffering Somali people, less than nine years ago: now the Bush administration is taking it as gospel that it is yet another crumbled nation that is harbouring al-Qaeda, and thus is probably in for a spot of satisfying high-altitude pulverisation. If I were Ridley Scott, I would not be dedicating such a wretchedly misconceived movie to my mum.

Manohla Dargis (review date 12 September 2003)

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SOURCE: Dargis, Manohla. “A Veteran of Epics Directs Smaller Men.Los Angeles Times (12 September 2003): E14.

[In the following review, Dargis characterizes Matchstick Men as “a minor interlude between Scott's usual major endeavors,” noting that Scott seems more comfortable directing epic-scale productions.]

A self-consciously modest film from an immodestly talented director, Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men comes equipped with a major star (Nicolas Cage), a ripe second banana (Sam Rockwell) and the regulation pretty face (Alison Lohman).

The script was co-written by Ted Griffin, who hatched Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven and like the earlier film hinges on some likable grifters after a serious score. It has the sort of cheerfully amoral characters and zigzag plotting that should make it float, but in contrast to the Soderbergh, it merely drifts.

A natural-born filmmaker, Scott has a visual style that in its balance of pointillist detail and sweeping scale can complement whatever large-scale story he's chewed off or prove the principal salvation of weak material.

Equally important, the director has the confidence—or naive faith—in his ability to tackle difficult, unwieldy, seemingly impossible subjects. He's one of the few filmmakers working in Hollywood who can see into the future, as he did in Blade Runner, and also seem right home in a Roman coliseum, as he did in Gladiator. Unlike Soderbergh, Scott didn't need to learn epic; unlike the younger director, however, he may be incapable of doing anything else. Which is one reason why Matchstick Men feels like a divertissement, a minor interlude between Scott's usual major endeavors.

In the film, Cage plays Roy, a con man who calls himself a con artist, possibly as a hedge against feeling bad about his profession. Plagued with obsessive-compulsive disorder—a clean-and-tidy freak, he manually smoothes every errant carpet fiber—Roy inhabits a body that often seems on the verge of betraying him.

He ejects streams of nervous “mm-hmms” and opens and closes doors exactly three times, counting off as he does so. He also has a problem with light. When in the middle of a con he's accidentally flooded with sunlight, his face spasmodically erupts in tics, eyelids shuttering rapidly and nearly blowing the deal. He and his partner, Frank (a suitably unctuous Rockwell), are doing a fine business cleaning out bank accounts, but Roy's a mess.

Giving the tic-happy Cage license to squint, rattle and hum is risky, but despite all of the Tourette's-like bits of business that come with the character, this registers as one of the actor's more tamped-down performances. Roy is a sympathetic rogue, but for the most part, he isn't overly sentimentalized. Cage has a habit of overselling his characters (he works his feathery long eyelashes as hard as any silent-screen vamp), but either the actor or Scott has put a restraining order on his histrionics. That's something of a relief, but because there isn't much to the character it's also a bit dull. Mostly, though, it's a surprise given that the main focus in Matchstick Men isn't the con the swindlers unleash on a millionaire (Bruce McGill) but the potentially gooey relationship between Roy and his newly discovered 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Lohman).

As a caper movie, Matchstick Men tools along pleasantly if unremarkably. There isn't much guesswork needed to figure out what's really going on, which makes you wonder what you're supposed to be thinking about if not the plot's ostensible twists upon twists. Cage, of course, is fun to watch even when his character isn't, as is Rockwell, who makes your skin crawl much as he did in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. It's always a delight to see McGill in action, and Lohman, who shares some nice quiet moments with Cage, inhabits her teenage character with tender persuasiveness. Indeed, everything in Matchstick Men moves and looks right, from John Mathieson's cinematography to Tom Foden's production design, so it's puzzling that the film fizzles rather than fizzes.

One hallmark of Scott's work is the ease with which he puts over far-fetched stories; another is that he doesn't especially seem to like or need happy endings. His characters are intense, fierce, determined—just like his direction. In almost every film from The Duellists on, he has brought an unshakable conviction to his work, and he's backed that conviction with a visual style that's as overpowering and unrelenting as Phil Spector's famous wall of sound. This is, after all, the director who almost, almost, turned Demi Moore into a believable Navy SEAL in G.I. Jane, one of the more outrageous leaps of faith proposed by a filmmaker in recent memory.

Yet with Matchstick Men, Scott seems uncharacteristically diffident, almost bored, which may be why he doesn't try to dazzle us. Maybe the story's too small, the characters overly familiar. There are, after all, glimmers of other con jobs in the movie, other father-daughter tears. One of the pleasures of Ocean's Eleven was watching Soderbergh counter the weightlessness of his film with sharpened technique. Soderbergh could already shoot, but with Ocean's Eleven he learned how to drive the sort of big machine Scott has piloted for years. For a filmmaker of Scott's ambition and reach, the return to Earth—where the heroes are named Roy, the stakes are low and the light never shimmers as brilliantly as it does in a Ridley Scott movie—may not only be impossible, it may finally be unwelcome.


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