Saturday, March 17, 2012

Classics Revisited: Blade Runner

(1982) Directed by Ridley Scott; Written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples; Based on the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” by Philip K. Dick; Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos and Daryl Hannah; Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Rating: *****

What’s It About?

“It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?” – Gaff, Blade Runner

The stories of Philip K. Dick, which often deal with themes of identity and altered reality, have been notoriously difficult to adapt to film.  Few interpretations of Dick’s work have adequately encapsulated his uniquely literary, skewed vision of the human condition.  Strictly viewed as a film based on a novel, Blade Runner could be seen as another failed attempt.  Taken on its own terms, however, director Ridley Scott’s take on Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? stands as a landmark effort.  Scott and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples retained some basic aspects of the source material while going off on completely different tangents.  The end result is a dense, richly imagined world that’s an existential meditation on life, death and what it means to be human.

Several versions of the film have circulated over the years.  The most notable difference is that the original theatrical cut had a lackluster, film-noirish voiceover by Ford.  Although Ford’s voiceover provided a few minor insights, it was mostly distracting, and more often than not, pointed out the painfully obvious.  Scott likened getting the voiceover right as “forcing something through the eye of a needle.”  Scott and Ford were never happy with the results, and the voiceover was wisely omitted from the later versions (1992 Director’s Cut and 2007 Final Cut). 

Blade Runner takes place in Los Angeles, circa 2019.  Blade runners are a special unit of the police force, tasked with tracking down and destroying highly advanced artificial humans called replicants (designed to do the dirty jobs for humanity), whose presence on Earth is illegal.  The latest batch of replicants, designated Nexus 6, were engineered to possess superior strength and intellect.  When four of this new series escape to Earth, it’s up to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to “retire” the errant replicants.  The nature of the replicants is one of the fundamental differences between Dick’s vision and Scott’s concept.  Scott viewed the replicants as being superhuman in abilities, while Dick saw them as something less than human, a metaphor for the loss of humanity in society.  Oddly enough, these two divergent views lead to the same conclusion, that technology has somehow dehumanized us all. 

** Warning, some spoilers ahead (And if you haven’t seen this by now, why not?)!

Deckard is railroaded into the blade runner job once more, but he’s become tired of playing the cat-and-mouse game.  Ford brings a world-weary sensibility to his character, seemingly frozen in a perpetual malaise.  He drifts through his surroundings in an automaton-like state, unable to derive pleasure from anything.  In the 2007 DVD commentary, Ridley Scott speculated that Ford must have been a fan of Humphrey Bogart’s acting style, based on how he approached the Deckard role.  It’s easy to see the parallels when you view the scene in which Deckard corners the replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) in her dressing room, adopting a nerdy voice to throw her off guard while he closes in for the kill.  The scene is clearly reminiscent of a moment in The Big Sleep when Philip Marlowe (Bogart) similarly disguises his voice in a bookstore to confuse the shopkeeper.     

Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) is the de facto leader of the escaped replicants.  His soft-talking demeanor belies a killer’s instinct.  He’s designed for combat, but possesses self-reflective capabilities as well.  Hauer plays Batty with icy conviction and an understated intelligence, relentless in his pursuit of his creator.  He and his fellow replicants share a common problem – a built-in four-year lifespan.  Despite his superhuman strength and intelligence, there’s nothing he can do to stop the inevitable.  In his final showdown with Deckard, he takes a moment to reminisce about his experience in his brief life.  He somberly observes, “…all of those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”  

Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) literally sits in his high tower, away from the pollution and urban sprawl.  He remains detached from the rest of society, as he’s left to play god with his creations.  He callously tells Batty that “The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long,” which comes across as more of a back-handed compliment than a consolation.  He loves his creations as an artist might love a sculpture.  Turkel plays the tycoon Tyrell as sort of a cross between Howard Hughes, Albert Einstein and Walt Disney.  Turkel was discovered by Ridley Scott, who liked his ghostly presence as the bartender in The Shining.  Tyrell appears almost otherworldly in Blade Runner.  Otherworldly, perhaps, but not invulnerable.

The most striking aspect of Blade Runner is the appearance of the film, populated by Syd Mead’s designs and effects work supervised by the great Douglas Trumbull.  Detailed miniatures help create the illusion of a densely populated, smog-choked urban landscape cast in perpetual night.  The flying cars (“spinners”) litter the sky, performing a dangerous ballet above the streets.  Blade Runner was mostly filmed in a studio backlot, although the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles is featured prominently in several key scenes with genetic designer J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) and the remaining replicants.

Why It’s Still Relevant:

Screenwriter Peoples purposely avoided using the term “android,” choosing to refer to the artificial people as replicants (based on a conversation he had with his daughter, who was studying genetics in college).  This a significant choice when discussing issues of humanity, which implies their biological origins – flesh and blood, not microchips and wires. It also helps to give the film its contemporary feel.

There has been much debate about whether or not Deckard himself is a replicant.  Some would see the scene where Gaff (Edward James Olmos) leaves an origami unicorn in Deckard’s apartment as irrefutable “proof” that this is the case (implying that he’s privy to knowledge and imagery that would only exist inside Deckard’s mind).  I think this is nothing more than an existential MacGuffin.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter.  In his cold-blooded pursuit of the replicants he loses what makes him human, only to find himself again in the process through his relationship with the replicant Rachael (Sean Young). 

The “lived in,” future-retro look of the city has been copied countless times (Dark City and The Fifth Element are just a couple examples).  It’s doubtful that there will be flying cars in L.A. or people will be flocking to off-world colonies by 2019, but the city designs still look fresh and visionary.  It’s an uneasy mix of old and new architecture that takes New York to an extreme.  Another prescient aspect of future Los Angeles is the heavy multicultural influence.  Scott stated that he made a conscious decision to depict an Asian-dominated society (evident in the ubiquitous building-sized advertisements, languages heard on the street and Deckard’s food choices).  Gaff uses a unique “street-speak” (concocted by Olmos specifically for his character), which is a conglomeration of Asian, European and Latin tongues. 

Lately, Ridley Scott has hinted about a sequel, which just seems like a completely unnecessary, inherently bad idea.  The characters and situations feel complete, with Rick and Rachael going off to whatever fate awaits them, and I’m fine with that.  There’s no need to continue their story, or hypothesize what a Nexus 7 replicant might be like.  Like so many other important films that preceded it (Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life) it wasn’t fully appreciated when it was first released, but it has steadily gained momentum.  And like these other classics, a sequel would only serve to tarnish the greatness of the original.


  1. Good review.

    This is one of those films that I've seen three times over the decades, and it has still never lived up to the hype for me. I'll explain.

    I read a TON of science fiction when I was a teenager and into my twenties. This film came out during that time for me. When I saw it I knew critics had hailed it as groundbreaking and original, but I just saw a plot that had been done dozens of times in various books I had read. The concepts had been around for decades and they were very well known. Yes, I realize the critics were talking about movies, not books, but it was a letdown for me because I had bought into the hype. Being too familiar with the genre led to a less than impressed reaction to the film.

    Some time in the 90s I finally watched it again because so many people were exclaiming about the film. I thought, "maybe I missed something." I had the same reaction - decent movie, but nothing great. Finally, some time in the 2000s I watched the supposedly much superior Director's Cut. Once again, same reaction - decent movie, but not anything special for me. I haven't bother to watch the Ultimate Cut. I've decided I'm always going to be in the minority on this one.

    1. Thanks, Chip! I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this one, but I appreciate your honesty, as always. Rest assured, you're not alone with your viewpoint. I was always disappointed that Roger Ebert (another film writer I strongly admire) didn't share my enthusiasm for the film.

      I read a great deal of science fiction when I was growing up as well, but my reaction to Blade Runner was quite different. Although many of the themes and concepts were not new when the film came out in 1982, few other science fiction films (2001 and Forbidden Planet excluded) had been able to immerse me so completely in their visual worlds as Blade Runner did.

      I don't think there's one film that's universally loved or hated, so I think there's always going to be room for a dissenting opinion. I've never been a big fan of The Godfather, for example, which I always felt was a trifle overrated (just not a big fan off the organized crime genre). Sorry to ramble, but my point is that there's room enough in the blogosphere for many opinions, and I feel that both of our divergent viewpoints are valid.

      - Barry

  2. Nice review Barry, One of my favorite Sci-fi films. Just caught this again on TCM a couple of weeks ago.

    I too was horrified by Scott talking about making a sequel. However, those trailer for Prometheus, which I thought was going to be a bad idea don't look half bad.

  3. Thanks for reading! I agree about Prometheus... The trailers have me intrigued.

  4. I found your site via The Lamb. I liked you detailed review of one of my favorite movies. If Scott does make a sequel to this, I hope it's set in the same universe but not with the same characters.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! It's one of my all-time favorites as well.

      I guess if there has to be a Blade Runner sequel, Scott would be the best director for the job. We'll see how well he does with the Alien prequel (sort of), Prometheus.

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