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BLADE RUNNER (1982)
Ridley Scott's film remains the defining vision of futuristic science fiction.
By Steve Biodrowski
February 29, 2000
BLADE RUNNER (1982), the science fiction masterpiece directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based on Philip K. Dick's novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, was derided during its initial release for being long on visuals and short on substance. Audiences stayed away in droves; apparently, fans of STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK did not want to see Harrison Ford as a conflicted, self-doubting character. But over the ensuing years, the film's reputation grew, culminating in a theatrical re-release of the so-called director's cut in 1992--the version which is currently available on video and DVD. The changes were relatively minor (the addition of a shot of a unicorn for a brief dream sequence, the deletion of the voiceover narration and the happy ending), but the critical reception was a 180-degree turnaround. One suspects, as much as the changes, it was the passage of time that made the difference, allowing viewers the distance necessary to judge the film on its own merits rather than as the next 'Harrison Ford' movie.
BLADE RUNNER really set the style for futuristic science fiction for the next decade, and its influence can still be felt today. The special effects by Douglas Trumbull and cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth combine with fantastic production design to create a totally believable city filled with smoking factories, flying cars, giant projection screens, and lumbering blimps. As individual elements, these are impressive, but it is a tribute to Scott's vision as a filmmaker that they all blend seamlessly together. This is one of the few films wherein the special effects (regardless of how realistic they are) look exactly like part of the first-unit photography.
All of this is fused with film noir stylings and hard-boiled storytelling, as if Raymond Chandler had decided to write science fiction. This grounds the movie in a familiar setting, making the outlandish future recognizable in way a way and, therefore, more believable. It is also very well suited to the plot, which follows Deckard (Ford) as he tracks down a team of replicants (i.e., androids) who have killed their masters and are now trying to reach their creator in the hope of extending their life span. The point of Dick's novel was that, in the process of hunting and killing the emotionless androids, Deckard was in danger of becoming like an android himself, dehumanized by the bloodshed he wrought. The film goes this idea one better, by making the replicants superhuman--deadly when defending themselves, but also clearly capable of emotions. In the book, a female android seduces Deckard to distract him from his purpose; in the film, the blade runner and the replicant (Sean Young) genuinely fall in love. With the demarcation between human and non-human blurred, Deckard's job becomes even more morally questionable, and it's one of the film's sick jokes that he really only kills two of his four targets--both of them women, one of whom he shoots in the back. Ford's expertly expressed self-loathing, his hands shaking after 'retiring' his first replicant (Joanna Cassidy), all but insured the film's initial failure. After all, audiences were accustomed to seeing him dispatch opponents with nothing more than a shrug of indifference in RAIDERS; who wants to see him suggest that, perhaps, the good guys aren't so good and the bad guys aren't so bad?
Weaving into this narrative is the story of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the leader of the replicants. In classic FRANKENSTEIN fashion, we are ultimately expected to sympathize with the plight of this artificially created human. Which is not to say that the film attempts to justify his murderous proclivities; rather, like Frankenstein's unfortunate creation (at least in Mary Shelley's novel) he is an articulate soul both terrifying and sympathetic, provoking a wide range of emotional responses from the audience. Part of the excitement of the film is watching this putative villain gradually take center stage, his story ultimately paralleling Deckard's. (Even Batty's whispered words, echoing off the walls during the final confrontation, seem less like a real voice than like Deckard's guilty conscience tormenting him.) The identification of hunter and hunted is a familiar ploy in thriller movies, but seldom has it been so well handled, with a genuinely thought-provoking ambiguity.
This parallel was emphasized by the director's cut. Without Deckard's narration, which made us identify him as the lead, the film became more balanced between Deckard and Batty. The audience was forced to absorb the images without their being diluted by a voiceover telling us how to interpret them. Scott's style in this version bears a striking similarity to Sergio Leone. In his Italian Westerns, Leone often intercut stunning landscapes with close-ups of actors, and Scott employs a similar technique here, with POV view special effects sots alternating with close-ups of his actors. There is additionally an emphasis on eyes ('the windows of the soul,' as the saying goes), with the result that what the characters are seeing is, in effect, being absorbed into their minds; in other words, the external landscapes created by the effects technicians, are through Scott's use of them, turned into the blasted and depressed inner landscapes of the characters' minds. This approach turns Scott's supposedly empty visual flash into a sophisticated means of conveying character without reliance on dialogue or voiceover. In other words, it is no longer mere technique but a part of a style that enhances the whole, using cinematic techniques instead of conventional literary or dramatic ones.
The result is a film that takes the essence of Dick's novel and transforms it into something else, a sort of parallel work of art. The dialogue, story, and characterizations are much better than critics gave the film credit for, but the true strength derives from this visual scheme. This is a film that truly pulls you into its world, making you identify with the characters by making you see what they see. If the world-weary tone of the Deckard character sometimes slows the film down in its quieter moments, that's all part of the plan. Ridley Scott knows that a good image isn't simply pretty; it has something to convey, and he's willing to give viewers time to 'read' these images. Overall, a rich, rewarding film, dense in texture, filled with details, almost overwhelming in its impact--worth viewing again and again to savor its nuances. Not perfect, perhaps, but nonetheless a masterpiece.