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Film Review: Blade Runner

Blade Runner (1982; Directed by Ridley Scott)

Blade Runner is a classifying kind of movie. Perhaps more drastically and uncompromisingly than most films, Ridley Scott’s insidiously influential but stubbornly unique hard science-fiction neo-noir cult classic ruthlessly sorts those who see it into acolytes and doubters, believers and infidels, devotees and heretics. Even in its original theatrically-released version, minus a thematically key (and highly suggestive) unicorn dream sequence (restored in a later, more critically definitive Director’s Cut) and plus an execrable and extraneous detective-movie voiceover from star Harrison Ford (whose disdain for its very existence drips from every line he reads), Blade Runner doesn’t pull its punches, reveling in its dystopian production design, its odd and disturbing details, its pregnant symbols, its philosophical quandaries, its sometimes glacial slow-burn pacing. It dares you to either love it immersively and totally or else to be left cold and unmoved by its particular aesthetic and intellectual vision. Ironic, in a way, that a film whose core mysteries revolve around its imagined highly permeable membrane between humankind and intricately designed human-like androids (and the moral and existential questions that this permeability summons) should catalyze such ironclad divisions of interpretation and quality assessment.

At least three determined viewings later (a couple of rounds with the obviously flawed original theatrical release and a whirl with the more venerable Director’s Cut), I can do little but declare myself for the camp of unmoved heresy. There’s much to like and even to adore about Blade Runner, without a doubt. Harrison Ford’s burnt-out replicant-hunting cop Deckard, dragged out of retirement for One Last Job, might be his best performance (and maybe the only example of REAL. ACTING. among his iconic genre blockbusters of this era), and although Rutger Hauer’s menacing Method replicant philosophe Roy Batty is not in anywhere near as much of the movie as you might remember, it’s also an impressive supporting turn: his closing “Tears in Rain” monologue (re-written by Hauer himself) powerfully crystallizes the unruly mass of Big Ideas that ricochet around the handsomely envisioned mise-en-scène. Vangelis’ eerie score, a naturalistic expression of techno-modernity, is subtly wondrous. Lawrence G. Paull’s production design is spectacular and thematically rich in its own right, a compelling amalgam of the vertically-stacked urban towers of Fritz Lang’s ur-sci-fi film Metropolis and, in Scott’s words, “Hong Kong on a bad day”. The cinematography (by Jordan Cronenweth) is all-world, among the finest of the era if not of all eras: Deckard’s killing of replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) amidst neon tubes of light and reflective, break-away panes of glass is not only stunning but brutal, and shot through with any number of resonant visual metaphors (as with practically all the rest of the film).

With such deep reserves of richly-flavoured cineaste fodder (I’ve barely touched on its play with film noir conventions, although this video essay from Lessons from the Screenplay does a better job at that than I could) and its breadth of intellectual influences, references, and sources (biblical themes and religious symbolism, Gothic horror themes, Freudian psycho-theory, anti-colonialism, corporate hegemony, modern alienation, and the hubris of science, to list off only a few), you’d think Blade Runner would be right up my frequently-pretentiously-minded alley. But there’s something about it that I can’t help but feel holds the viewer at arm’s length. The invidious central puzzle – is Deckard, the great hunter and executioner of replicants, himself a replicant? – is played out in subtexts and suggestive details, only openly addressed when his sophisticated replicant love interest Rachael (Sean Young) asks him, point-blank, if he’s ever run the replicant-identifying Voight-Kampff test on himself (Deckard, perhaps tellingly, does not answer). But it takes over the already-daunting battle for empathy at Blade Runner‘s core, subtly short-circuiting Ford’s excellent and wounded performance and even some of its resonant central themes with mystery-box bait-and-switch tactics.

Because ultimately, it doesn’t really make a lick of difference to Blade Runner‘s thematic power if Deckard is a replicant or not. This is a film about perception and lived experience as an existential proof of sentience, and about humans without souls subjugating and even exterminating android with souls in a dying world that no one can wait to leave (the most suspicious thing about Batty and his band, in truth, is that they go to shitty, exhausted Earth rather than the heck away from it). Deckard has spent his days as a hit man for corporatist state authority, tasked to eliminate people deemed inferior slaves but designed to be veritably superhuman. He feels bad about it, and so we feel bad for him. His pain might gain some added pathos if he had been made to snuff out his own kind for so long, but it’s a relatively minor manner of degree, and in neither case does it render his legacy of acts morally correct.

Blade Runner is, in many ways, a fairly straight-ahead hard sci-fi take on the moral and existential implications of artificial intelligence, given particular form and aesthetic uniqueness through its design, imagery, and invoked symbolism. Like the replicants, it’s special but limited, by its very design. It’s seen things we people wouldn’t believe, but it shows us glimpses only, filtered through the uncannily familiar and through altered (sometimes even upended) conventions. It’s often been called visionary and it’s hard to say it isn’t, but it displays a sort of tunnel vision, in a sense (in much the same sense as all Ridley Scott movies, if I had to expand upon the observation further). Perhaps, as a non-believer, I am unequal to the task of thinking through its brilliance, but perhaps it’s Blade Runner that is unequal to that brilliance. I get it, but I’m not transformed by it. Maybe that’s all right, after all.

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