I don’t take pleasure in contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism. To me, disliking things merely to be defiant–whether one is actively trolling, or attempting to purport some kind of superiority in taste–is a pointless, waste-of-energy exercise. Sometimes, I enjoy films that, say, have tepid critical reception–I maintain Only God Forgives and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey are two of the finest films ever made. More often than not, I tend to be indifferent to popular entities. Even my favorite Marvel movie–probably Black Panther–I find to be very good. So, when I find a critical or cult darling that I’m supposed to enjoy and I cannot see what the fuss is, I become agitated.
So, part of me has always wanted to embrace Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that received tepid response upon release, and has since become a science fiction classic. Nearly 40 years later, little else is like Blade Runner–including the miraculously great, reverent long-gap sequel Blade Runner 2049 is a very different film. Scott’s futuristic neo-noir is a solid melding of genres, and an undeniable triumph of style, while suffering as a half-assed meditation on life and passion that happens to be bitterly cold and shockingly wooden–often undercutting the film’s own themes through stilted, tonal monotony.
In the year 2019–relative to Blade Runner, that is–humans have not only set out to worlds outside of Earth, but have created artificial intelligence known as replicants. Four models of the Nexus 6 series of replicants–commissioned by the Tyrell Corporatio, designed strictly for off-world slavery–after developing emotional awareness have run away. These replicants are more physically and intellectually dexterous than a normal human–why someone would make robots meant for manual labor that is smarter than the humans who they’re meant to serve is anyone’s guess. They also have a lifespan of only four yers. So, this fabulous four–Roy (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Darryl Hannah), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), and Leon (Brion James)– and are illegally skulking about Earth, looking for their maker Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkell), in the hopes of gaining more life.
Enter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) a former “blade runner–” a nothing title that has no significance to sharp objects, nor any uniqueness to running–who begrudgingly takes the case of these runaway robots. Early in his investigation, he meets Rachael (Sean Young), an assistant to Tyrell. Often, to distinguish between humans and replicants, a blade runner administers the “Voigt-Kampff” test. Leon takes the test at the start of the film, and just shoots the administer after one question–so, the jury’s still out on whether or not Leon is really a replicant. Deckard has Rachael take the test, though, and lasts over a hundred questions before Deckard can definitively conclude that she’s a replicant–according to Tyrell, a prototype for replicants implanted with memories to better help control their emotions. Despite having the chemistry of water and oil, Deckard and Rachael become romantically linked.
In the meantime, Roy and co. are on the hunt for Tyrell, but have no access to him. So, Pris hitches up with a genetics engineer J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) who happens to have direct access to Tyrell. All the while, Zhora has somehow become a beloved exotic dancer, and Leon is just standing around in the rain looking menacing. Eventually, Deckard catches us to Zhora–in perhaps the only moment of levity in Ford’s performance, and maybe the whole movie–under the guise of a workplace safety inspector–a sort of government issue HR rep. Of course, Zhora figures out that Deckard is onto her. In an extended chase sequence seemingly out of Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Deckard catches up with and “retires” Zhora–retirement being the parlance for executing a replicant on sight. Deckard is caught by Leon, and nearly killed, only for Rachael to show up–Deckard tells her where he is in a proto-FaceTime call a scene earlier–and blow Leon’s brains out–a bit of poetic justice, one might say.
The rest of the film is more or less the same thing. Roy tracks down people, and Deckard catches up to him long after some carnage has been wrought. And golly, is the last leg of Blade Runner surprisingly graphic. When Roy Blatty crushes a skull, or breaks someone’s fingers, or stabs himself with a rusty nail, Scott makes those moments felt. They are genuinely startling. In fact, if any part of Blade Runner works on a story level, the film succeeds at creating a few tense interstitial set pieces. Even Rutger Hauer’s Roy Blatty has a threatening way about him. A mix of theatrics, a Cheshire grin, and Roy’s ability to loom over someone make for a memorable and effective antagonist–even though Roy is the ideological hero of the picture.
That same level of engagement cannot be found in any other part of he film/. The closest the film has to a soul is in J.F. Sebastian, with William Sanderson’s mild-mannered, cautious, albeit sleepy demeanor providing some point of empathy. Not even Harrison Ford, whose whole career is predicated on being a fun, charismatic cowboy type is nearly entirely lost with him just brooding and looking vaguely grumpy from scene to scene. Sean Young is maybe the worst offender. The very notion that Deckard would have to give her any kind of examination to determine whether or not Rachael’s a replicant is silly, given that Young is an objectively robotic presence. Even though Rachael is meant to be the most emotionally healthy character, the only reason this might be true is because she has no discernible thoughts or feelings to speak of. Ridley Scott is not known for his work with actors. He often just casts people who know how to do their jobs, and can deal with his muted approach. Yet, the lifeless qualities of Blade Runner almost seem purposeful. Scott is so committed to this dreary, dilapidated vision of the future that everything else takes a backseat.
And to be sure, Blade Runner is impressively designed. Nearly 40 years later, Jordan Cronenweth and Lawrence G. Paull’s respective cinematography and production design are so beautiful and lived-in, they can buoy two lackluster hours. Paull’s Metropolis-inspired matte paintings and art direction is blatant, but no less fresh. Cronenweth’s photography is lit with a lot of low-key and motivated lighting: Colorful, and deceptively naturalistic. Moreover, the heavy use of shadows and blinds that create leading lines when light is shown through them, establishes a classically film noir appearance. Cronenweth also keeps the frame active with rain, snow, and enough smoke to give someone lung can, moving the film when the story is stalling. This, to say nothing Vangelis’s Moog-heavy score–which is moody and forlorn, carrying the feeling of the film–or the stunning VFX, whose practicality is even more impressive when one considers the scale of the metropolitan setting, or just the very real-looking flying cars.
The problem of Blade Runner, however, is that, for as rapturous and lush as the movie looks, the rest is still fairly one note. One gets the sense that this is a film interested solely in aesthetics. In multiple sequences where Scott just revels in the design of the movie just to show off. A futuristic world is one that is understood by those who live there. In fact, when we see anyone taking in the grandeur of the world, we see Deckard. Not the replcants who are new to Earth and who have a hankering for discovery, but the guy who has already been around the block. Even worse, Blade Runner is so humorless, so self-serious, and so aggressively dour that the film sometimes borders on mean. This is a film that espouses some amorphous notion of “living,” or ceasing the time one has, and of what being human means. Yet, Scott imbues the film no such warrant or sense of empathy, other than some presumption that life is inherently worth living. Yet, the film is so grim, why would anyone want to live in that world?
The script from Hampton Fancher and David Peoples does the film no favors. Even the movie’s title Blade Runner has nothing to do with Philip K. Dick’s novel that the film’s based on. The title is taken from Alan E. Nourse’s dystopian novel The Bladerunner, which is about smuggling medicine. That’s all the value of that title. The writers just thought Nourse’s book had a cool name, and even purchased the rights for the book for the title. As far as Dick is concerned, no film should have to compete with their source material, and Blade Runner is no different. The ideas that arise from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep–of mortality, of a mechanized and indifferent society, of simply enjoying the time alive people have–that Blade Runner decides to tackle are not approached poorly relative to the book; they’re just plain shallow.
Throughout the film, characters spout some of the most painfully contrived dialogue.”It’s too bad she won’t live; then again, who does?” “If only you could see what I’ve seen through your eyes.” “That ‘Voigt-Kampff’ test of yours: Have you tried to take the test yourself?” Numerous lines of clunky, obvious, hollow attempts at the same anonymous point. Tellingly, the only moment of genuine poignancy of the whole film is Roy’s “tears in rain” monologue, something that isn’t even in the script. Rutger Hauer improvised the speech, which is, at best, a fortunate accident. And if Fancher and Peoples were exploring nuances or intricacies of existence and consciousness, maybe the sophomoric verbiage wouldn’t matter. Or if we had any idea who these characters were, given how thinly conceived and how incurious Scott is about them, the film would have something to latch onto. So, when questions like “is Deckard a replicant ?” come up–which, he probably is, but such a revelation has no worth beyond reminding us that everyone dies, so enjoy life, which we’ve seen and heard a thousand times in this movie–the inquiry inspires total indifference. Deckard may as well be a toaster; that would make as much sense, and be equally compelling. And if Blade Runner didn’t have entire stretches of dead air, and doubled down on a vaguely intellectual action film, maybe Blade Runner wouldn’t be so empty.
Perhaps the greatest sin of Blade Runner is how many times Ridley Scott has felt the need to re-edit his work. To get the film just right. Seven different versions of Blade Runner exist. And having seen a few of them, The Final Cut is undoubtedly the least clumsy–the removal of Deckard’s voiceover is a step in the right direction. The film doesn’t have some supremely intricate plot that requires so much rejiggering; the narrative of Blade Runner is actually incredibly straightforward. Nevertheless, so much of the run time is spent on slow, pretty-looking conversations that barely go anywhere that the film is mostly sterile. In fact, Blade Runner might be the prime example of style-over-substance. Scott’s film is gorgeously vacuous–the cinematic equivalent of the high school junior with floppy hair who just discovered Nietzsche. And yet, one would be remiss to ignore the cultural impact of Blade Runner. As a staple of cyber punk and sci-fi, and even the influence the film had on the birth of the internet is unquestionable. But as an exercise? As a vehicle for existentialism? As an experience? With the little time we humans have, let alone a replicant, I suggest that one not waste precious time on something as banal and dispassionate as Blade Runner.
Rating – 3.8/10