Wednesday 5 May 2010

Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott
Star: Harrison Ford
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

My mother introduced me to golden age science fiction at a young age and I grew up reading Robert A Heinlein's tales of optimism. He wrote his greatest books at a time when a generation of Americans were looking forward to the future and seeing great possibility, a generation that made it to the moon in large part because of writers like him who told them it was possible. The more time goes by though, the more I realise that the writer who nailed it most consistently was Philip K Dick, surprising given that he was a paranoid schizophrenic drug addict who believed at one point that he had been possessed by the prophet Elijah. That someone with such a tenuous grasp on reality could become the most accurate prophet of technological and societal change in our present, especially given that he died in 1982, is something of a cosmic joke but I see new things in his fiction every time I read it. He resonates and only becomes more relevant with time.

Officially based on Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this isn't a particularly close adaptation. The book doesn't even include the words 'blade runner', which was sourced from a novel by Alan E Nourse instead. It has a far more overt ecological outlook, talks about andies instead of replicants and explores the notion of empathy a good deal further. Yet the script, written by Hampton Fancher and revised by David Peoples, taps so powerfully into the themes Dick continually returned to that it has become the quintessential Dick adaptation, ahead of Total Recall, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly, an adaptation not merely of one book but of his whole ouevre. The most obvious Dick theme has to do with the perception of reality and what it really means to be human, but there are others, like vast conspiracies that shift the ground out from under his lead characters, often perpetrated by large corporations on everyday people.

Here the conspiracy is perhaps the grandest of them all, one perpetrated by the all powerful Tyrell Corporation whose grand pyramid stands astride the futuristic Los Angeles of 2019. Tyrell is in the business of creating artificial life that is, as their motto would have it, 'more human than human,' something which becomes very apparent when we discover that some of the replicants Tyrell creates are so sophisticated that they don't even know that they're replicants. Fabricated fully grown as soldiers or slaves to work in the outer colonies, with implanted memories of real people, they appear physically identical to humans, though they can withstand some extremes that humans cannot. The only way to identify them as replicants, short of sticking their hands into liquid nitrogen, is through the VK test, a complex set of moral and ethical questions, mostly about animals, that explores the one emotional component that they're missing: empathy.

Needless to say, these enhanced synthetic humans without an empathic connection to anything are more than a little dangerous and so they're banned from the planet Earth entirely. They also have a built in four year lifespan, apparently put in place to stop them developing emotions on their own. However some come to Earth anyway, perhaps to live as humans or to attempt to find a way round the hard limits set on their lives. As our film begins, four such replicants, of the advanced Nexus 6 generation, are doing the latter and so the police call in a blade runner, a sort of replicant bounty hunter, to track them down and 'retire' them, the euphemism meaning just what you expect it to mean. The blade runner we follow on this mission is Rick Deckard, who is effectively forced out of retirement to do so. He's played by Harrison Ford, who after Han Solo and Indiana Jones was more than aware of how to play a morally ambigious leading man.

And that's what's called for here because this is a futuristic film noir. Blade Runner failed at the box office in 1982, though it did recoup its budget, and it failed for a number of reasons. Partly it was up against considerable competition, even just from the science fiction genre, which was thriving at the time. 1982 was the year of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, which dominated at the box office, with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and John Carpenter's remake of The Thing prominent releases too. However while each of those films had some depth, they were aimed at being family entertainment, blockbusters with cute aliens or monsters or space battles. Blade Runner, on the other hand, was a thoughtful science fiction film that told of the future by framing itself in the past and so audiences were probably confused. Certainly the test audiences weren't happy and the studio promptly added a film noir narration by Ford which was removed in later releases.

So perhaps people merely went in with the wrong expectations. After all, if the studio that made the film didn't know what it had on its hands, how could it market it properly? They pushed it as an action film, because it had the framework of a detective thriller and starred the biggest action hero of the time, but it's slow and thoughtful even in its action scenes. Anyone watching it for action is going to be mostly bored, LA TImes critic Sheila Benson even dubbing the film 'Blade Crawler'. It's phrased like a film noir, with an ambiguous hero, a beautiful femme fatale and a complex web of storylines, but this was a 1982 world of widescreen and colour and moviegoers didn't know what a film noir was. It's a romance, of sorts, but not one that would appeal to your average romance fan, especially as the characters involved aren't human. Even science fiction fans had problems, given that many of them expected something more basic like Star Trek.
At least they got flying cars. We open on the futuristic landscape of Los Angeles, something that combined what Scott wanted to look like 'Hong Kong on a very bad day' with northern English industrial influences, a memorable way to open one of the most visually stunning films of all time and a timely one. It's all old and new at once, something very recognisable today in cities like Shanghai but rather innovative at the time. The old comes through crumbling architecture, gas chimneys burning off their excess and perhaps also through the continual rain. Somehow we don't expect it to rain in the future. The new is represented by omnipresent video billboards, genetic engineers working off the street and the futuristic metal and glass pyramid of the Tyrell Corporation, covered in lights and busy as a hive with flying cars buzzing around it like bees. It's cyberpunk before there was a cyberpunk, this being one of the key influences on that genre.

Inside the futuristic pyramid we find ourselves watching something right out of the forties, a detective called Holden smoking under a lazy ceiling fan while he interviews a waste disposal engineer called Leon Kowalski. We don't realise initially that Holden is a blade runner and Leon is a Nexus 6 replicant, but that's much of the point. Everything here is perception: to us these are just two men but they're not and because it's so difficult to tell the difference, we have to rely on the story to explain it to us. As the only difference is in how they think, you could even draw parallels to the Communist witchhunts of the fifties or to the thoughtcrimes of Nineteen Eighty Four. The timelessness is enhanced by the technology all around them being incidental. Lesser directors would have thrust it at us, Ridley Scott makes it commonplace. Knowing that he's going to fail the VK test, Leon opens fire and escapes into the city for our story to begin.

And here's where Scott benefited from a quirk of circumstance that led to the production design of Blade Runner being unmatched anywhere in cinema. At ground level, this 2019 Los Angeles is jawdropping. So multicultural that we can believe Japanese has become the first language and advertising the second, its cyberpunk mix of genetic engineering labs sharing space with sushi bars is more believable than the real city used as background in many contemporary films. The old city crumbles as the new city evolves on top of it, with two themes everywhere. One is the Eastern influence, a cyberpunk constant which extends from the obvious to rice paddy hats on kid cyclists, origami cranes and the bonsai tree on Tyrell's desk, not to mention kanji graffiti. The other is the eye, in poetry the window to the soul and in Nineteen Eighty Four the eye in the sky of constant surveillance. It's prominent here in the VK test, the geneticists and the advertising.

It's easy to see all this as being the work of Ridley Scott, who has proved himself over a couple of decades as being one of the most artistic of all film directors, or of Syd Mead, the futurist who worked wonders in the visual effects department, but neither can claim full credit. One of the key elements to the successful look of the film is that the crew were on strike for no less than seven months but the production design team continued at work, honing their vision to greater and greater effect. Scott is a painter with light with an uncanny sense for composition, but a quick comparison between two striking Ridley Scott films, Blade Runner and Black Rain, shows just what seven extra months of production design can do. No wonder that the two Oscar nods this film racked up were for visual elements: one for the effects and the other for the art direction. It lost the latter to Gandhi, though it's hard to imagine anything superior from any year.

There's so much detail that this futuristic LA is totally immersive. I've seen this film many times but only this last time through did I notice that as the camera descends to the street to focus in on Rick Deckard, Roy Batty is seated opposite him eating food from a street vendor. Batty is the leader of the four Nexus 6 replicants that Deckard must hunt down, though we only meet Leon for a while and then only briefly. First we meet the human players, because we must understand what it is to be human in this particular future before we can begin to explore what it is to be an approximation of it. Capt Bryant is an old school cop, the sort we expect to be corrupt and one that Deckard demonstrably doesn't trust. He's also a racist, one who calls replicants skin-jobs, the epithet obviously comparable to 'nigger' or 'chink', as the 1982 narration hammers home. Yet he's selective as the wild ethnic mix of his sleazy henchman Gaff suggests.

Bryant sends him to Dr Eldon Tyrell, the head of the corporation that carries his name. As befits the creator of a lifeform almost entirely indistinguishable from human beings, Tyrell is portrayed somewhat like a god. His office resembles a temple and when he asks Deckard to administer the VK test on his assistant Rachael he even dims the sun through polarising his windows. Later, Roy Batty confronts him with the words, 'It's not an easy thing to meet your maker,' and calls him 'father'. If Tyrell has the role of God, that means that Batty is Jesus, something reinforced when he pierces a nail through his palm to stay human just a little longer. Religion was another theme that permeated Philip K Dick's work, but this deity metaphor excepted, Blade Runner restricts its religious content to set decoration, the busy streets populated not just with Eastern references but nuns and Hare Krishnas too.

Deckard is there to discover what he's up against and it turns out to be Rachael, a Nexus 6 so well constructed that she doesn't even know herself that she isn't human, her memories merely implants taken from Tyrell's niece. 'Replicants are like any other machine,' Deckard points out to her. 'Have you ever retired a human by mistake?' she asks in reply and he doesn't get a chance to respond. The obvious answer, of course, would be 'How would anyone know?' From this point on we can't help but wonder about every single character in the story, including everyone we've already assumed is human. Even Tyrell could be a replicant, as the 'more human than human' motto of his company reflects the Singularity, with its concept that once a machine can be built that is more intelligent than the humans that built it, it can continue that trend upward at ever increasing speed and leave us behind. Perhaps Dr Eldon Tyrell is that first machine.
The most obvious question and one hotly debated by fans is whether Rick Deckard is a replicant. It's deliberately left ambiguous but Ridley Scott has gone on record to state that in his vision he is and there are plenty of hints dropped to that effect. Most obviously he dreams of a unicorn, an origami version of which is left outside his apartment by Gaff, suggesting that the cop knows which memory implants he received at the very same location that Deckard demonstrated to Rachael where her memories came from. The final scene with Roy Batty underlines it for me, where he seems to find a kinship in slavery after looking into his eyes. In the source novel, Deckard passes the VK test, indicating that he's really human but of course even that could be taken to suggest that he's merely superior enough a replicant not to fail it. Another hint is that Holden looks rather like Deckard, suggesting that perhaps all the blade runners are replicants.

Ford is excellent here at the peak of his career, fresh from The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he clashed constantly with Ridley Scott, who was making his first American film. His experience has perhaps been mellowed by the years but he still blisters against the voiceover narration he was brought back to do by people who didn't understand the film. The supporting cast were less well known at the time but include many very recognisable actors. Dutch action star Rutger Hauer was the easiest to cast, even Dick describing him as 'the perfect Batty: cold, Aryan, flawless.' His personal favourite of all his many roles, he has surprisingly little screen time but every moment of it is joyously memorable. Even a throwaway line like, 'Yes, questions,' becomes poetry with his playful delivery and his sparkling eyes. His death scene, full of elegaic sorrow, is one of the greatest in film history, one that must have influenced John Woo.

His fellow replicants are played by Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy and Brion James. Hannah is Pris, 'a basic pleasure model', quirky and desirable with her skimpy costumes and mask of airbrushed black, but with the air of a worn out prostitute. Cassidy is Zhora, an assassin who Deckard finds working as an exotic dancer with an artificial snake. James is the dim but tough Leon, who shoots his way out of his initial VK test, his murder of Holden prompting Deckard's introduction into the story. Every woman we meet in the film is a replicant, perhaps hinting that women are going the way of the animals so that artificial ones are the only ones affordable. Even Tyrell's pet owl is artificial. 'Of course it is,' says Rachael when Deckard asks. Sean Young plays a smouldering Rachael in only her third film and has never looked better than the ice cold but elegant secretary she was in her early scenes here.

On the side of the humans, if we can safely assume that anyone in this film is really human, there's M Emmet Walsh as the hard boiled Bryant, a dapper Edward James Olmos as Gaff and Joe Turkel as the genius god Tyrell. The other name that really warrants specific mention is that of William Sanderson, who plays a lonely genius called J F Sebastian, who suffers from Methuselah Syndrome which ages him prematurely, so he looks far older than his supposed 25 years. He hides out in the rapidly detoriating Bradbury Building with his quirky genetic creations. 'They're my friends. I made them,' says Sebastian to Pris, showing more humanity in one scene than Dr Tyrell shows throughout the film, yet another pointer to his potential status as replicant. The Bradbury Building, a frequently used film location, becomes a character of its own here, Scott shooting it externally like a film noir set and internally like paintings of the old masters.

I've seen many great films in my time but only a few fill me with a sense of awe at how utterly right they are. Blade Runner has gone through a number of versions, from the initial one with the noir narration through the director's cut, which was nothing of the sort, to the version that Ridley Scott put together in 2007 and called the Final Cut, which I finally saw before writing this review. From the dilapidated proto-cyberpunk streets to the glittering and dizzying heights of the Tyrell pyramid, the difference no accidental nod to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, everything about this version is right and in many ways it's utterly unsurpassed. Certainly the production design and the electronic score by Vangelis are hard to match, but everything else holds up. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that this is the greatest science fiction film of all, ahead of such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Empire Strikes Back and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Why? Because Blade Runner only gets better, not just as cinematic art but as a commentary on our times. I tend to watch this film every few years and every time I return to it I find that it has acquired new relevance. Since my last viewing in 2005, for instance, Dr Craig Venter has created the first synthetic living cells, the inevitable beginning to a story that focuses on the creation of artificial life. The VK tests needed to identify who is truly human echo the complex tests used at the 2009 World Athletic Championships to ascertain whether Caster Semenya is truly female. I also can't help but compare the replicants' four year built in lifespan with the concept of Digital Rights Management (DRM), a means by which content owners can control the use of intellectual property they own even after it has been sold. Roy Batty is an easy metaphor for culture fighting to be free. I wait with eager anticipation what's going to become relevant on my next viewing.


jervaise brooke hamster said...

"Return Of The Jedi" and "Forbidden Planet" are much better films than "Blade Runner" which i`ve always regarded as one of the most ludicrously over-rated films of all time.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Forbidden Planet is a great film, no argument there.

But Return of the Jedi? C'mon! That isn't even the best Star Wars movie. It isn't even the second best Star Wars movie.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Sorry Hal but in my opinion "Return of the Jedi" is better by itself than all the other 5 Star Wars movies put together, the space battles and the reactor chamber sequence are still amongst the most breathtaking moments in the entire history of cinema.

Anonymous said...

My compliments on a thoughtful essay about a truly great motion picture--one that, as you observed, becomes even more meaningful with the passage of time.

I've seen it more times than any other movie (except "Casablanca"), yet I never noticed the early glimpse of Roy at the takeaway counter. I'll be looking for it next time--thanks!