The Armchair Astronomer: Tears in Rain

I suspect science fiction fans might neatly be divided into two types of people: the 2001 type and the Blade Runner type. I belong to the latter tribe. 2001, while brilliant in so many ways, strikes me as sterile, cold and dry. A type of future Hemingway would probably recognize as his kind of place. Dystopian, yes, but with the clean lines and brightly-lit interiors of Von Braun and Bonestell. Grandiose, sprawling, opaque, 2001 is an effective film, but also one with little spoken poetry. The characters don’t say really much of anything to each other for most of the film. Me, faced with all that empty space, I probably wouldn’t be able to shut up. Then again, I’m likely not NASA material.

(I actually prefer the far inferior sequel, 2010, more because it hit me right at a time when I was questioning the whole Cold War construct I had been brought up in, something that film does with all the naive optimism of the Apollo-Soyuz handshake, and because it costars Helen Mirren with a Russian accent.)

Blade Runner, on the other hand, is a rainy mess of a film, with a production story as bewildering as the film’s narrative is filled with continuity issues. In contrast to the obsessively-polished gem of 2001, Blade Runner is a imperfect, tumbled agate, released now in so many “final” or “director’s cut” versions that it’s fairly clear that the people at the helm of the didn’t have a specific cut in mind at all…or they had several in mind at once and could never decide.

The multi-hour documentary that goes along with the version of Blade Runner I have is almost as interesting as the film itself. One learns the fantastic efforts to shoot the opening scene of the hovercar flying over futuristic Los Angeles, how the flames from the towers were projected onto tiny pieces of acetate, and how all the effects you see were done in-camera, often one frame at a time. How they used panes of glass with special reflective areas to make the replicant eyes look like those of cats, how the special effects guys even used a kitchen sink, on it’s side, gussied up with tiny pipes and panels, as a building in one model cityscape. Compared to something like the unspeakably two-dimensional Phantom Menace, where the flatness of the computer animation mentioned that of the writing, acting and directing (does the re-release of that film in 3-d mean the acting will be better?), Blade Runner was a supremely physical, three-dimensional effort.

Though I still find the special effects sequences of Blade Runner to be without peer, it’s a rather effect-less scene that most sticks with me. I’m speaking of the replicant Roy Batty’s death scene, also known as the “Tears in Rain Soliloquy“. It’s a great bit of acting by Rutger Hauer, but it’s also a brilliant piece of editing.

Blade Runner is the quintessential post-modern film. In the storyline, and in the story of the making of the film, there are no facts–just points of view. And this murk clouds the Tears in Rain Soliloquy too. Here’s one of the earliest versions of it that I could find:

I’ve known adventures, seen places you people will never see, I’ve been Offworld and back… frontiers! I’ve stood on the back deck of a blinker bound for the Plutition Camps with sweat in my eyes watching the stars fight on the shoulder of Orion…I’ve felt wind in my hair, riding test boats off the black galaxies and seen an attack fleet burn like a match and disappear. I’ve seen it, felt it…!

A shooting script published on the internet by Hampton Francher and David Peoples shows us one evolutionary step closer to what we see in the film:

                  I've seen things...
                         (long pause)
                  seen things you little people
                  wouldn't believe... Attack ships
                  on fire off the shoulder of Orion
                  bright as magnesium... I rode on
                  the back decks of a blinker and
                  watched c-beams glitter in the dark
                  near the Tanhauser Gate.
                  all those moments... they'll be gone.

Rutger Hauer’s intervention was to realize that the imagery, conjuring an off-world reality that we never see in the film, has to be subordinate to the meaning of it all for the character (and for us). A list of geeky details means nothing without the humanity, the essence of experience above and beyond facts. In other words, Rutger Hauer realized that it had to be poetry, not exposition. Hauer is the one who came up with tears in rain.

Accounts differ on when Hauer made the final edits, and when director Ridley Scott first heard it. One story has Hauer working on it the night before, and presenting it during, a morning script reading. Another story is that the first time anyone hears Hauer’s version is when Huaer delivers it on the set, cameras rolling. The story has the crew members breaking out in tears during Hauer’s delivery, and applauding afterwards. I like that story.

The one fact that seems to be agreed upon by all involved is that it was indeed Hauer who massaged the speech into its final form and came up with the climactic tears in rain simile, and that it’s Hauer’s excellent acting chops that breath’s life into the whole thing, so much so that, although you still don’t know what the heck he’s talking about, you know it must be pretty amazing stuff. I have no idea what a C-beam is, but I’d like to see one. (Every time I do astronomy outreach in winter, I always try to throw the phrase “the shoulder of Orion” into my presentation. Nobody has ever caught that.)

Watch the expressions on Batty’s face. He looks in turn wicked, lovable, pitying, self-depracating, sad, wise and resigned. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford, never the most emotive of actors, mostly looks like he has to pee:


Here’s the final Tears in Rain soliloquy, as edited and delivered by Rutger Hauer.

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 near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Note how many less words there are in that than the earlier versions. There’s room in there for Hauer to act, to pause, to let his face and the music communicate the information between the lines. As a writer, I admire the minimalism of it, the iterations it took to get to that absolute and perfect minimum, the ear for which details to preserve and which to cast adrift.

My vote for one of the best scenes in movie history. Time to sleep.


3 thoughts on “The Armchair Astronomer: Tears in Rain

  1. Very good read. Thanks for you observations, cerebral, not celestial. The full moon was glorious last night. Get some rest and heal up!

  2. Grazie for your provocative piece. You and your insights – from un altro mondo! Totally rock! Looking forward molto to your next post…..

  3. It is a stunning piece of acting, you really believe those things are flashing in front of his eyes. I just wish they had left the dove out…beautiful moment and Scott lobs in a cheese grenade. Great post, cheers.

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