Party Like it’s 1989: Batman (4K UHD)

Its difficult for me to seperate the memories of that summer of 1989, and how big an ‘event’ film it was, from Tim Burton’s Batman itself. Its all wrapped up in the same thing- Batdance playing in the charts, Prince’s Batman album, the news reports about its release Stateside, all the marketing/tee-shirts/toys etc. I don’t know what the marketing budget was, but Batmania was huge that summer, with the Bat-logo seemingly everywhere. In some ways the film was a corporate juggernaut, from the casting choices to the use of Prince etc; it’s a testament to Burton’s efforts that the film still feels like it has a singular voice and vision in spite of the demonstrably hands-on studio behind him. 

Batman was the first film I saw in a cineplex, when the Showcase opened up nearby and consigned the old dilapidated ABC cinema in town to history forever (and eventual closure). So Batman remains more a memory of time and place than just a movie that could ever be judged on its own terms- it’s the quintessential ‘event’ movie, in the same way as Star Wars was and Jurassic Park was. Some films are never ‘just’ films.

Its also worthy to note that Batman wasn’t influenced by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, as later versions were (Miller’s opus cast a long shadow over Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Snyder’s Batman v Superman). Instead, it definitely appears more focused on the very first comic books prior to Robin featuring- something evidenced particularly by its oddly 1940s ‘look’ which seems to set the film in some strangely timeless world, a curious mix of period fashions and art deco sets and futuristic gadgets mixed will all sorts of retro stuff. In this respect, it’s a lot more like Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, which itself had a very dreamy, almost lost-Americana feel in which even the films ‘present day’ had a strong sense of early-1970s kitsch even in 1978. Both films of course are commended for taking the original sources very seriously indeed- thanks to endless re-runs on tv of the camp 1960s show, Tim Burton’s film in particular had a big weight around its neck in this regard which is possibly hard to envisage now, all these years later.

The production budget for the film was $35 million, which in today’s money would equal something around $75 million- not as high as might be expected in this age of $150 – $200 million budgets, perhaps indicating the surprisingly smaller scale of the Burton film compared to the later versions (Batman Begins was budgeted at $150 million in 2005, about $198 million in today’s money). The scale of the film is also impacted by the technology of the time. The CGI of the post-Matrix era has really enabled film-makers to open up the possibilities and trickery in superhero films, leaving Burton’s film rather dated with its matte paintings and model shots.

But of course films are always of their time, and I recall even in 1989 being underwhelmed by some of the visual effects and opticals; Batman was always an old-school, overwhelmingly analogue film even in 1989, with obvious nods to German expressionism in film and Citizen Kane and Vertigo. In this respect it remains a certain achievement and a curiously beautiful artifact.

Indeed, it looks damn gorgeous on this amazing 4k release- I’m really quite astonished at how beautiful this film looks now in 4K. Sure much of the fakery still looks fake, but some of the matte painting extensions of Gotham are just breathtakingly beautiful to look at, with new detail and colour breadth. And the sets. Good grief the sets. The interiors are pretty astonishing in detail and lighting (the HDR really benefiting the shadow detail) and the exteriors are really a wonder (the Gotham streets built on the Pinewood backlot and shot at night really impress here with all the added detail). In some ways this Batman is one of the most impressive catalogue 4K UHD discs I’ve yet seen- the HDR isn’t distracting (you’re not blinded by bright lights etc like you can be in some rather revisionary remasters) but simply increases the sense of depth and detail throughout. Its really tastefully done, clearly retaining the intentions of the original film-makers but looking, frankly, better than it ever has, even during its original theatrical presentation in 1989.

An interesting thing rewatching this film after so many years (I really can’t recall when I last saw it, but it was possibly on DVD) is the casting- after seeing Heath Ledger’s Joker, I expected Jack Nicholson’s version to pale in retrospect, but Nicholson’s Joker still impresses, surprisingly still perhaps the definitive Joker so far. There’s something real and fascinating and gritty about him- of course Nicholson is a great actor with real charisma in front of the camera- it’s almost magical here. Jack Napier is clearly a Bad Guy, a self-centered criminal working his way up the crime-syndicate ladder who becomes distinctly unhinged once he becomes the Joker, with what I assume are Nicholson’s ad-libs elevating the movie in just the same way as Robin Williams Aladdin several years later. His Joker is mean and scary and funny in a really fine performance, and yeah, he actually kills people in this- I was surprised when watching this again to see both Joker and Batman kill people. Its a surprisingly violent film considering it also lacks some of the CGI hysterics/stunts etc that later contemporary superhero films are afforded now. Burton actually wanted to cast Brad Dourif as the Joker- boy would that have been a different movie.

Jack Palance of course is brilliant, the only problem with his Carl Grissom is that he’s not in the film enough, Palance having a huge weighty gravitas in the few minutes of screentime he has. Kim Basinger and Jerry Hall remind us just how old the film is/when it was made, Basinger reduced to just screaming damsel in distress most of the film and Hall simply a trophy moll, it’s clearly all stuff they wouldn’t get away with today (Basinger replacing Sean Young as original choice for Vicki Vale, how weird would that have been for me as a Blade Runner fan). I always liked Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox, a finely tuned comic performance that is quite measured and successful considering its in the same film as Nicholson’s Joker. Wuhl has always been one of the things I liked most in this movie.

Batman is curiously dated- as I have said, it was dated even in 1989 in some ways, and hasn’t ageed well since, but I did enjoy rewatching it. The saddest thing is that so much was dropped/changed when the sequel was made, and while many seem to think Batman Returns is superior I really don’t like it. I preferred the originals big Pinewood exteriors and interior sets, and really hurt by how much of the cast that we lost (I always thought Batman 2 should have reprised Billy Dee William’s Harvey Dent and featured Two-Face as the villian, it’s such just a lost opportunity). Batman Returns just felt like too different a film, and the title oddly ironic, as it wasn’t the return of the Batman I had so enjoyed in 1989- it actually felt like a reboot.

You will have noticed I haven’t mentioned the biggest issue I always had with this film- Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and Batman. His Wayne is okay I guess, but his Batman really seems limited. Maybe it was the suit. It looks okay but it was clearly a bitch to shoot, it looks like he can hardly move in the bloody thing. The cape is almost a funny throwback to the 1960s show how it flaps around much of the time, and any fighting sequence is hampered by the suits inability to actually do anything in it without falling over. I always watch the film thinking about Spielberg’s ordeals shooting the mechanical shark Bruce in Jaws and feel that Burton must have had similar sleepless nights with that damn Batsuit. They managed to light it okay in most scenes, with the film’s expressionistic approach and deep shadows helping hide many of its failings, but it’s not the suit a real crime-fighter would employ without being put to death by the first serious super-villain. Its one of the things that dates the film really, but what the hell, it was 1989 I guess.

And of course, even as a big Prince fan, it really does seem weird, his music featuring in this. With it 1940’s looks it always seems funny to see Joker’s goons lumbering around with a 1980’s boombox and Partyman blasting out of its speakers. But yeah, what the hell, it was indeed 1989 afterall. Party on.

 

Rachael 2049

Since I was posting those paintings earlier, lets complete this mini-topic with images of the CGI Rachael created for BR2049. I’m sure this creation was no small part of the film being awarded its Oscar for visual effects. While not completely flawless, its success seems largely subjective- individual suspension of disbelief is largely dependent on personal taste, and I admit being utterly entranced when I first saw BR2049 last October. I believe I groaned and my jaw dropped, as I was totally ‘into’ the film at that point. I still buy into it whenever I watch the film, even in less-forgiving 4K, which tells me that its not just what you do effects-wise, but how its applied and how it is supported by the rest of the film.  If you are ‘into’ a film, you’ll forgive and accept anything, really, whether it be dodgy matte-lines/bluescreen or wholly cgi characters.  Film is all make believe, ultimately.

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Rachael art too

rach2Here’s another painting,  most likely from the same photographic source that the painting I posted yesterday was based upon (which for reference, I include below). This artwork has a more traditional approach but is none the worse for that- superb likeness again. There’s some really lovely Blade Runner-inspired artwork online. I used to draw and paint Blade Runner stuff years ago in my youth, but it was never as good as much of this stuff, although in my defense, back in 1982/1983, good reference material was exceedingly hard to come by.

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Rachael art

rachInteresting image this, of Sean Young’s Rachael from Blade Runner.  Beautifully drawn, I like the fragmentation which  the artist has given it- adds a nice touch and gives it a feeling seperate from the usual Noir feel that such ‘art inspired by Blade Runner’ usually seems to have. In any case, its another reminder just how iconic the ‘look’ of this character remains so many years later.

Fifty Great Films: Blade Runner -The Final Cut (1982/2007)

br1“Where were you in ’82?” Its a question I’ve asked so many times that I should have it on a tee-shirt. Its something of a badge of honour, having seen the original version of Blade Runner back when it first came out (reaching UK shores that September), and loving the film, and watching its fall into obscurity and eventual phoenix-like rebirth years later.

Last night I saw the Final Cut version of Blade Runner on the big screen again, taking the rare opportunity of a cinema screening of my favourite film. This close to Christmas made the whole thing seem something of an early Christmas present. I went with my old mate Andy, who was with me back on that September afternoon in far-distant 1982 when we first saw the film. “How long ago was that?” he asked me as the endless adverts screened infront of us (some things never change, although I miss the Pearl and Dean intros). I did the mental arithmetic; “Thirty-two years,” I told him. Andy looked around at some of the faces sitting amongst us in the cinema. A lot of them were not even born back then.  The very cinema we first saw the film in (the old ABC in town) doesn’t exist any more. Thirty-two years. Andy and I are each of us just shy of fifty years old now. I have a wife waiting for me back home. It seemed oddly poignant then, at that moment, the two of us dwelling on the passing of time, considering how so much of Blade Runner is about death and mortality. We wondered how many of those at this screening had never seen the film on the big screen at all before this night*.

If we are getting old, then so is the film, but you’d hardly think it. Even though I love the film, its still remarkable how well it holds up even today. The sets and the beautiful cinematography really shine projected on a big screen, the sound effects loud and overpowering, the music as astonishing as ever. All that amazing set-dressing. The film influenced the ‘look’ of pop videos, television shows and other movies for decades. Back on the big screen, the visual effects hold up as well as ever- indeed, better on the big screen than at home. Its not so much just the execution, its the design of each shot, and the impact of using effects so sparingly, something modern films could learn from. Even the matte paintings. Blade Runner dates back to paintings on glass, static wide shots quite removed from the all-singing/all-dancing 3D CG mattes we see these days with sweeping virtual cameras. But stillness can be far more powerful than motion, and Blade Runner‘s mattes are quite a revelation, precisely designed and crafted.

Its a beautiful movie. Such details! Rachael’s photograph momentarily coming to life as Deckard looks at it. Its extraordinary. Who thought of doing that? Who even does stuff like that now? The blood from Deckard’s cut lip slipping into his drink. Deckard waking up in his apartment, awkwardly spilling his glass that had been on his chest. The cuts and bruises on his face. Rutger Hauer’s incredible performance; his face up on the big screen is quite mesmerising. His howls of anguish as he stands over Pris’ body. Still gives me chills.

br3Its such a dark movie, but such a sad movie too. The sadness threatens to overpower everything. A character has her whole life undermined when she learns she isn’t real, not even her memories or experiences. Its all a lie, a fabrication, as she is herself. Rick Deckard may not even be real. He might be just the same as Rachael. Its not an idea I subscribe to, but its there, a possibility hanging over everything, underlined by the origami unicorn that he finds at the close of the film**. The Replicants are slaves who have fled for freedom and longer lifespans as they quickly near their termination/expiry dates. JF Sebastian has a genetic problem that leaves him in a mouldering, rotting building, so alone his only company are the ‘friends’, the toys he builds. The rain never ends, its like Gods tears endlessly falling onto the blighted world.

Even now, thirty-two years on, it feels so unlike any other so-called blockbuster. It almost doesn’t function like an ordinary movie. Without 1982’s voice-over, it really does drop people into the middle of a story (if only The Final Cut had finally dropped that awful text prologue at the end of the titles!), a future rich with darkness and complexities. I’m the first to admit though, the central premise is idiotic. There is no way anyone would create superior artificial humans without an easy way to identify them. A blood test or some microscopic stamp in their eye or under their skin. Be that as it may, the four runaway Reps are supposedly on the run/in hiding but don’t even change their names, Leon trying to infiltrate the Tyrell building giving his real address and not even changing his name, his appearance or anything. Holden’s only got to look at the ID file on Leon (that we see as Bryant shows it Deckard later) to see that its him. But none of that matters. In some ways its not even important. Its the whole thing. The look, the sound of it. Its a fantasy about death and mortality and what is human, what is God. Of course it flopped at the box-office back in 1982. It isn’t the film people were expecting back then. Its something else entirely. Every Harrison Ford fan back then could have told you why***.

At films end, we walked out of the cinema into the cold December night, and it was, fittingly, raining. The rain-drenched carpark and shopping mall reflecting all the bright neon of shop-fronts, advertising signs and car headlights. We were stepping out into Blade Runner. Its here now. Back in 1982 it was still the future, but we are in it now. We may not have the flying cars or Replicants or Off-World, but we have the rain and the neon and the multi-cultural society that the film visualised. And some of us have our own mortality breathing closer over us.

Back in 1982, it was still quite sunny as Andy and I walked across town to catch our bus home. I remember us raving about the film, reliving it as we eagerly discussed it, digested it. Would I have ever dreamed that I would be walking out of another cinema, another showing of the film, some thirty-two years later? Of course not. Funny thing though. We were still raving about that film, this time as we walked through the rain, just as we had when we were teenagers so long ago. Some things never change.

 

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*This would be the fifth time I have seen the film at the cinema, the first time seeing the Final Cut on a cinema screen. I saw the film twice in 1982, then again the following year in a double-bill with Outland (another Ladd Company venture), and then the Directors Cut version in 1994. I didn’t get chance to see the Final Cut in 2007, screenings were quite limited prior to its release on home formats.

**I still feel uncomfortable in the love-scene between Deckard and Rachael. It feels almost like rape, she isn’t even human, what’s Deckard doing with her, is it masturbatory abuse of a construct? (is he making love to a toaster? Is that even legal? Is he even human himself? Are they two Replicants fumbling at a human sex-act?). But goodness Sean Young is so beautiful in this film. Too beautiful. She isn’t real. She’s a construct. I’m surprised Sean Young even exists outside of this movie.

***What was Harrison even doing in the film anyway? He’s great in it and I think its his best film, but it seems an odd move for him. Likely he was trying to shake off Star Wars and become a ‘serious’ actor (its funny, considering some of the films he would end up in afterwards). Oddly, I was never ‘into’ that whole Harrison Ford thing anyway back then, had not even seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, so when I first saw Blade Runner I wasn’t expecting any popcorn adventure movie. It was from the director of Alien for goodness sake, I figured it would be dark and serious.