Blade Runner

bladerunnerLos Angeles: 2019. Rebel droids (replicants) are on the run from a cop (Harrison Ford, the blade runner). Do they deserve to die? Does anyone?

Blade Runner is a dubious achievement. The visuals are great, but the story sucks — too many questions are raised. Yes, the concept of “future noir” begins here. No, it’s not fulfilled.

Ridley Scott, the “art” director, brings a layered, retrofitted air, but one too passive. It lacks pep: Quiet direction and narcose editing make for an inconsequential film. We’re bound to the gaze of passersby, too much do we feel the alienation and decay. Some call it a paradox, but the conflict — to be human in a world of hi-tech overload and postmodern debris — leaves the characters and the viewer hollowed out. Blade Runner is about a look that enslaves us all, even the film.

L.A., then, is the most compelling character. The tangibility of the FX (pre-CGI) and the ambiance (the environmental sensurround) are stunning. Not since Metropolis (1927) has a city-on-film been so cool to watch. Hollywood is a rock & roll ghetto, anyway — it should look like one in 2019. Because the design is unique, the film is unique.

However, the similarities to noir are thin at best. L.A., the tanned movie-land of displacement, is a given for noir, but the neo-chiaroscuro, and the fact that Deckard (Ford) is a civil cynic, are the only true bits of noir.

Noir is pungent – characters are thick with themselves. Quirks fill the plot. In that sense, noir is equal to Greek tragedy. Here we don’t know anyone, and the question of identity (fate) is weightless. The film posits so much doom, everyone and everything is a dead harvest — and we don’t care. It’s no small irony that the replicants, the “sam-a-crams” (Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Brion James, Joanna Cassidy, and Sean Young), are more human than human. They’re the only ones who show a whit of concern for life. And only by dint of pure physical being do the actors suggest depth the movie fails to plumb.

You go back to Blade Runner, though. The images lull, trance-like. It’s got the ring of a dream, and like a dream, you don’t remember a whole lot afterward. The movie should be seen as a silent film or as an ad for a better film. Just focus on the visual. It’s the only thing that makes sense.

2010 postscript
In 1991 my father took me to see the so-called director’s cut at the Rialto theatre in South Pasadena. (This cut, while an improvement on the 1982 release, was a rush job.) The film’s world blew me away. After buying the videotape in 1999 or 2000, I marveled (still) at the basic design yet found the “human” element lacking. That fall I took a screenwriting course. People there named Blade Runner one of their favorite films. I mentioned the extent to which it felt empty — muddled. One student called this a paradox. I was not so sure. Nonetheless, the movie’s impact on my final exam, a twenty-page treatment entitled “The Ice Age,” was unmistakable. I saw the film again, entranced. I was sure that it left plot strands dangling; that, well, it was almost too indirect. The review above, written in 2005, expounds on this. I gave the film a B.

Viewed in high definition, Ridley Scott’s 2007 final cut shames me. The human story was there all along. It’s just that, because of time, money, and technological constraints, Blade Runner was never quite finished — and now, with effects complete and continuities corrected1, Scott’s melancholic tone poem feels more of a piece. Always, then, the fourth and greatest obstacle for the film was its vision: a subdued open-endedness which gives the movie its dramatic heft. Time had to catch up.

Seen today, knowing it drops you in a world this unique, so sustained, and finally getting that it never had to be a true noir to work on its own terms, Blade Runner can only impress. With so much razzle-dazzle to take in, the viewer can absorb at will. The brooding, overwhelming sadness of the performances is calibrated just right. It is not so much a superimposition but the foundation for everything else.

1Kudos to Warner Brothers for beautifying this work of art so judiciously. They didn’t “2007” the effects. The point was to make the film as best it could be in 1982, had Scott had his way.

About Jack Cormack

Email Jack at