Blade Runner – 1982 (Guest Post from Niall McArdle)

Synopsis: In a rainy, polluted Los Angeles in 2019, genetic engineers for the Tyrell Corporation have created replicants – superhuman androids that are used as slave labour in outer space, and who have a built-in lifespan of only four years. Renegade replicants are hunted and killed by police officers known as “Blade Runners”. When a group of replicants led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) returns to Earth hoping for more life, it is up to a blade runner called Deckard (Harrison Ford) to stop them.

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Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a film I can watch again and again, and with each viewing I discover something new. If you’ve never seen it, I envy you the pleasure of seeing it for the first time: depending on what sort of films you’ve seen, Blade Runner might be one of those films that alters your idea of what science-fiction can be. From its startling opening shots of an overgrown, hellish industrial cityscape reflected in a human eye to its final image – the sudden closing of an elevator door on the hero, now wondering about his own identity and the things he has seen and done – it is a painfully human view of an inhuman society. And if parts of it seem familiar to you, that’s because for years lesser talents have been ripping off its look.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it’s a richly textured blend of science-fiction and film noir that presents a brutal, dystopian vision of the future, a corporate city-state inhabited by the poor, unlucky masses who failed the physical that would have gotten them off Earth to one of the space colonies. A giant blimp floats above, beaming its lights down, a game-show announcer voice blaring that “a new life awaits you off-world, a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity,” but it’s doubtful anyone will have the chance. They’re like the inhabitants of Casablanca waiting for travel papers they’ll never get. Indeed, the urban hell reminds me oddly of Casablanca: an exotic but tired city filled with black markets, desperate, hustling people, dozens of languages and dangerous nightlife.

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More human than human is the motto of the Tyrell Corporation, and that may be why human life here is so cheap. If anything, it’s feudal. Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the man who designed the replicants, lives in opulent splendour with his artificial owl at the top of a giant pyramid, while at street-level, peasants scramble and steal. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is somewhere in the middle. “If you’re not cop, you’re little people,” he’s reminded at one point. He could probably live in the idyllic off-world if he wanted, but like any noir detective, he’s more comfortable in the grime of the city. He looks up at the blimp with contempt. He’s dismissive of his obnoxious boss Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) and the fussy, too-smooth Gaff (Edward James Olmos). Deckard knows his way around the seedier parts of town. He puts the squeeze on witnesses when he has to (“your license in order, pal?”). He even borrows a trick from Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep when he pretends to be a nerd.

For him to stay above the fray he’s required to kill replicants. In corporate-speak it’s called retirement. It’s just a job, it’s not personal. “Replicants are like any other machine: they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” So why does he seem troubled by it? He meets the beautiful Rachael (Sean Young), and she’s a curious mixture: she looks like a 1940s career girl (and smokes like one), but behaves like a fragile virgin. After they meet, in the tradition of cynical, existential private eyes, Deckard sits alone in his depressing apartment, drinking and thinking. But I’m pretty sure Humphrey Bogart never thought of unicorns: I won’t tell you why I think Deckard dreams of a magical animal in a pastoral setting. There is still intense debate on the internet as to what it means.

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For a detective film, it moves quite slowly. What energy it has it owes to Rutger Hauer in one of his best performances as replicant Roy Batty. With spiked bleached hair and leather trenchcoat, given to howling and quoting William Blake, Batty is one of cinema’s great, lurid villains. He’s partnered with Pris (Darryl Hannah), a waifish ragdoll. This is a film with vulnerable robots striving to be human and a child’s view of sexuality (watch how Hauer and Hannah kiss). In the end you’ll feel sorry for them.

Blade Runner has a look and style that was massively influential. The visual effects were done with models, front projection and matte painting, and are more effective than much of the CGI nonsense we see today. The attention to detail is impeccable; there’s something of interest wherever you look, and though much of it is ugly, it’s beautifully shot. Is it cyberpunk or steampunk? I think it’s both. There are flying cars and robots, but much of the machinery looks Victorian. The machine used to test replicants looks like equipment a nineteenth century scientist might have had: it has bellows and makes hissing noises.

Blade Runner had a famously difficult production, with weeks of night-shoots in the rain, truculent crew-members, and studio executives leaning heavily on director Ridley Scott. After poor test-screenings, the producers tacked on a clunky voice-over and an out-of-nowhere happy(ish) ending.. It didn’t help. Released in 1982, a few weeks after E.T., it bombed as a summer popcorn movie, and inexplicably its effects and design were overlooked at the Oscars. The critics weren’t kind. Missing its message, Roger Ebert thought the story lacked humanity and snarkily wrote “I suspect my blender and toaster oven would just love it.”

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But it soon grew a cult audience that was in awe of its production design, visual effects, beautiful Vangelis score, bleak, Orwellian view, and the difficult, metaphysical questions about humanity it posed. This was not the shining city on the hill that Reagan had promised America would be, and as sci-fi entertainment it was worlds away from what Spielberg was offering. Several different cuts of the film exist. A restored “final cut” without voiceover was released in 2007: that is Ridley Scott’s favourite version, and that is the version you should try to see.

Niall McArdle

Blog: http://ragingfluff.wordpress.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ragingfluff
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/niall.mcardle1
Google+: https://plus.google.com/u/0/115269297697168573948/posts/p/pub

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. The Fountain says:

    Is definitely one of my big favorites. I like films that put the question of what humanity means, and how much we humans have already removed us from it.

    1. and i don’t think many films since have tackled that idea.

  2. simon says:

    “If you’ve never seen it, I envy you the pleasure of seeing it for the first time” – yeah I agree with you.. what a film. It’s amazing that people didn’t get it the first time round..

    1. and it’s always a pleasure to rewatch it, a sign of a great flick.

  3. mramgemini6 says:

    The first time I saw “Blade Runner” was back in the 80s when it was on VHS. Decades later I saw the Director’s Cut, which is far superior to the theatrical cut. I happen to think the Director’s Cut is definitive of who Deckard is; but there are those who will disagree. I won’t go into details so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t watched this gem of a movie yet.

    As for Roger Ebert’s puzzling take on “Blade Runner”: as far as I’m concerned, he’s just another opinion among billions. He made a comment on the Wolverine comic book/movie character that was completely erroneous, saying that Wolverine couldn’t be killed nor does he feel pain. This dumbass obviously wasn’t paying attention to the “X-Men” movies or the comics. Yes, I know Ebert is dead, but that doesn’t cut any slack with me if someone says something that is incorrect. As a movie reviewer, he should know better.

    Bottom line, people shouldn’t put too much weight on what movie reviewers say. If you happen to be interested in a movie for whatever reason, then watch it regardless of what anyone says.

    1. i haven’t watched the original 1982 version (with voiceover) in years. i do know some people (a few) who prefer it to the director’s cut, but for me once he released the director’s cut (in 1992 or thereabouts) it transformed how i felt about the film.

  4. beetleypete says:

    Darrell ‘lost’ my original comment here Niall, so I won’t write it all again. Instead, here is my own (much shorter) appreciation, of one of the greatest films of all time. Scroll down the list.
    http://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/some-science-fiction-films/
    High praise indeed, and deadly serious. Thanks for spreading the love of this modern masterpiece.

    1. cheers pete. I think one of the great compliments to the film is that a leading architect in London screens it for his employees once a month so they can study the look and design of the city

      1. beetleypete says:

        That is a wonderful, dystopian city indeed Niall.

    1. cheers for the reblog

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