Friday, February 03, 2012

Blade Runner (1982)

USA/Hong Kong, 117 minutes
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Hampton Fancher, David Webb Peoples, Philip K. Dick
Photography: Jordan Cronenweth
Music: Vangelis
Editors: Marsha Nakashima, Terry Rawlings
Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joe Turkel, Hy Pike

Did anyone have any sense how well regarded Blade Runner would ultimately become when it was first released? No one I knew. A few decades on, only Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull rank higher among movies made since 1979 on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Currently at #38, Blade Runner is the highest-ranked and most recent picture on the list until Fanny and Alexander, at #75, also from 1982, and only Kubrick's 2001 is ahead of it in the science fiction genre. The reputation this picture has won for itself in such a relatively brief time still surprises me a little. I mean, I liked it when it was new—but I also liked Diva (currently unranked) when it was new, around the same time, and I remember liking it more.

I'm not questioning how good Blade Runner is—in fact, I would have to say when I made a recent project of looking at it in all its permutations that it has worn remarkably well, and is indeed only better, a truly great picture. I'm not sure Ridley Scott ever made anything else within shouting distance of it, as much as I may like some of it or not, nor do I think his fiddling with three edits did much for it beyond removing the obnoxious voiceover accompanying the first version (and there's a case to be made for the utility of that element as certain plot points are blurred without it). But I'm also not prepared to argue that this is one of those happy-accident collaborations where everything falls right, such as Casablanca or The Third Man. It's definitely flawed. Maybe I just need to call it an early salvo in the reputation of Philip K. Dick, whose legacy still appears to be on the rise, and leave it at that.

In fact, it plays as much like noir as anything else (OK, neo-noir in color), for all its science fiction conceits. Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) dons the figurative trench coat of Philip Marlowe and takes himself down dark and mean streets, neither tarnished nor afraid—but unsurprisingly with dubious motivations, hunting sentient androids on the run in a decaying metropolis. Of course he falls in love with one of them, and the only thing missing at that point is a wailing soulful saxophone on the soundtrack. Which is probably only because Vangelis, who supply the music, favored futuristic keyboards and synthesizers. It's there every other way.

Yet in spite of all these heavy dick trappings it remains first and foremost a spooky near-future space opera of unparalleled instincts. It wears its accouterments well, including an environmentally ruined and overcrowded Los Angeles that is impossible to forget or to disbelieve, battered cars that fly, random barrages of sensory overload and unexplained details such as hooded midget street gangs or lines that recur out of place, a gaudy product placement that mocks Coca Cola with glee at the same time it promotes it, in the bombastic exteriors and cityscapes an unmistakable debt to a granddaddy of science fiction, Metropolis, and, of course, artificial intelligence run amok. How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm when they've seen things you people wouldn't believe.

Blade Runner is dense with glistening surfaces, and if it occupies most of its time dancing across them, like light reflected on water, the oppressive sense of place that it creates—which is entirely believable, still—penetrates and leaves a mark, sailing past the cerebrum and into the brainstem where it belongs. It is pleased to go as slowly as it wants, creating allusive scenes that flow in and out of one another like hallucinatory memories, meditative and aching and poignant, its frames bursting with detail, affording one the time, barely, to take them in.

The set pieces of action, which come in violent bursts, contrast nicely with the lulling pace and mood, offering beauty of another sort. When Deckard catches up with and ultimately takes out his first android here, a pleasure-unit model named Zhora (played by Joanna Cassidy), whom he finds in a seedy joint, it is a spectacular sequence of color and dark and shattered glass and flung bodies and wailing keyboards.

Blade Runner gets overripe when it is pleased to do so as well. Doomed android Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) huffs and puffs and struts his hour upon the stage—the hour that he knows too well is all he will ever get—blowing windy about "meeting my maker" and ironically venerating life and addressing bitterly as "father" the CEO of the corporation which built him; eventually Batty kills him in grotesque yet stylishly coherent fashion, and metaphorically grounded too. (Compare the "Star Trek" franchise, which later took this theme and beat it like a rented mule with its own android character, Data, who was a much more friendly sort and better lighted too.)

It's all too easy to go down rabbit holes of concept, as some fans may be wont to do, unfortunately with doggedly tiresome enthusiasm, e.g., is Deckard actually an android himself? It's easy and it might be tempting to see it that way but I don't care. I think the main pleasures of Blade Runner are in the way it looks and feels and moves, which is really about all anyone can ask from a movie, except maybe for a bag of popcorn too. In spite of all its various excesses, sometimes I think because of them, Blade Runner really works quite splendidly.


  1. Fantastic movie and great write up! But what about the themes of mortality, identity, ethics and deicide? A very human like life form faces its mortality, trumped up identity and ultimatelly kills it's nearly omnipotent genius creator. Friggin a batman! It makes fight club look like a Disney movie!

  2. dan s., you're right it has some really ambitious themes I barely touched on -- its ambitions are among it's greatest charms, even. And I do agree that it is waaayy better than Fight Club!