I was going to write something commenting about the Oscars, but there really wasn’t anything there that I could organize into a coherent article. I was reasonably pleased, Jon Stewart was mostly funny, some very talented people won. Nothing much to talk about, so instead, let’s review BLADE RUNNER. I only got around to buying the legendary “Final Cut” just recently, and watched it yesternight.
The first time I saw BLADE RUNNER I was overwhelmed. It was a showing at the Englewood Theater in Independence (which USED to show classic movies, I think it’s just a normal theater now) on a screen some fifty feet wide, and the visual and aural overload prevented me from fully understanding what I was seeing. I was fascinated enough to take second and further looks on video, and the picture improved significantly. Now, after many delays, Ridley Scott has been able to assemble and release a version of the film which reflects his definitive vision, and though it’s not a significant revision compared to the Director’s Cut release in 1992, it does seem once and for all to cement the film’s status as a masterpiece of science fiction. Not only is it a visual marvel, rendering a dystopian future in almost sensuous detail, it’s more complex than it first appears, showing the struggle against mortality and the struggle to hold on to a sense of self as they appear in the stories of many characters, from the hardboiled protagonist to his psychotic quarry. The first feature film adaptation of the works of Philip K. Dick (in this case the novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?), BLADE RUNNER takes many liberties but confronts many of the same issues with equal measures of intelligence and passion.
The film is set in 2019, in the overgrown and forever polluted city of Los Angeles, where crowds of people live in the kind of squalor that Dickens characters would find intolerable. Most everyone is trying to jump ship to the fabulous off-world colonies, and the Tyrell corporation has developed replicants, near-perfect androids, to do the work of men better than most men can. However, many replicants, especially the newest Nexus-6 models, have developed free will and tried to escape human control. A batch of them have fled back to Earth, and the LAPD enlists the aid of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former “Blade Runner” whose job it is to retire rogue replicants with as much force as necessary. Deckard’s been trying to retire, but is quickly coerced back into service. While hunting, he falls in a sort of love with Rachel (Sean Young), a Tyrell Corporation secretary who’s also a replicant, but doesn’t know it since Tyrell has given her false memories to try and ensure she behaves more predictably. The rogues, meanwhile, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), are on a desperate search- a replicant has a four year life span, and Batty is nearing the end of his, so he’s trying to wrest secrets from the Tyrell corporation that might help him to stave off the inevitable.
The term “future noir” has stuck with this film so well that it’s actually the title of the making-of book; the plot has the structure of a detective story, with Deckard piecing together clues to find the replicants walking among us, but mirrors this with Batty’s own investigations and attempts to get inside the company. Unlike most detective sagas, however, this movie isn’t really about the details of its plot; the clues fit together, but the investigation is something of a straight line (and Ford complained at points that he was playing a detective who did no detecting.) The excitement is not really in what happens, but how it happens, and where. The look of BLADE RUNNER, itself influenced by HEAVY METAL magazine, has influenced countless films since, even spilling over into architecture and the graphic arts in general. As grimy, damp, crowded, and smoky as the world of the film is, it’s bizarrely beautiful, a sea of lights amongst the darkness with magnificent structures built upon a foundation of poverty and pollution. One nice detail, taken from the novel, is that most animals have become exceedingly rare, creating a market for synthetic animals that aren’t so much pets as status symbols. We have flying cars, but only for the police- everyone else just wishes they could get off the ground. There are giant billboards and a massive corporate pyramid in the heart of the city. The artist Vangelis composed and performed the music for this film, and in its futuristic simplicity it hints at a kind of hope and grandeur as a counterpoint to the visuals.
Many great looking films get accused of being short on substance; and BLADE RUNNER was and is no exception, and you can see where the idea springs up. The dialogue is sparse and the story advanced mostly through visuals (part of this was actually Ford’s doing- early scripts contained heavy amounts of narration filling in details of the investigation, but he wanted to do some on-screen detective work, so some scenes were repurposed.) Of course, in the wealth of beautiful images, the plot significance of a single scale or a pile of photographs can easily get lost, and this is probably why Warner Bros. originally insisted on adding narration back into the picture for its initial release. But these things are quadrinary; before them come the atmosphere, the characters, and the themes raised by what’s happening to everyone.
The atmosphere I’ve dealt with. The characters are based in archetypes- the hard-boiled detective, the femme fatale (three in this picture, if one also includes Joanna Cassidy’s exotic Zhora and Daryl Hannah’s childlike Pris), the thug (Brion James as Leon), the cynical police chief (M. Emmet Walsh), the sleazy cop (Edward James Olmos in an amazing turn), and of course, the villain. Brought to life with ferocious energy, Rutger Hauer’s Batty is a man dedicated to getting as much out of life as possible. He is passionate and moody, given to tenderness as well as murderous rage, and there’s a hint of Milton’s Satan in him as well, as he rises to confront his own God- Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the head of the Tyrell corporation. Hauer is utterly captivating and almost steals the show entirely, despite Ford being as well cast as he is. Though Roy does some plainly awful things, he and his comrades are in a life or death struggle, and a key question is whether they deserve life any less than the humans who dispassionately wander this hellish realm they’ve created for themselves. But of course, everyone dies, it’s just a matter of when, and everyone- including Deckard, as a dealer of death- must acknowledge that they’re mortal. (William Sanderson gives an endearing performance as J. F. Sebastian, a Tyrell corporation engineer suffering from premature aging.) Whether they are even alive or not, human or not, is up for debate; Deckard of course makes himself a little less human with everyone he executes (there’s a nicely callous scene where he tells Rachel memories that only she should know, tearing down her illusion of humanity forever.) The question seems to be, is humanity something we’re born with, something innate, or do we have to earn it and fight to hang on to it? This is the same ethical debate that formed the central thesis of Dick’s novel, and though he was more hard-nosed on some elements (his replicants are decidedly sub-human, incapable of empathy towards others), the essential idea that it is empathy that makes us human is retained.
When watching “The Final Cut” I picked out only one shot as definitively new (and this because a photo of it had appeared in FUTURE NOIR)- most of the alterations are very subtle tweaks in effects and editing, to make the film a bit slicker and a bit smoother without calling attention to anything different. Some important ambiguities (and fans of the film will know what I’m talking about) are still there, and it’s more or less the same film that’s been out for over a decade. Nonetheless this DVD release- which also contains the theatrical cut for those who prefer it, plus a couple of other versions- is a great opportunity to get reacquainted with a genuinely great film, a classic that has improved substantially with age. BLADE RUNNER is a film to be experienced, to be immersed in, not needing to be instantly understood but definitely something to be felt.
From the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” by Philip K. Dick
Screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples
Directed by Ridley Scott