Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)


It rains a lot in the Los Angeles of the future. Even when it’s not raining, the atmosphere of futile dread still permeates, pulsates from the neon signs and the chaotic, shouting alleyways. You couldn’t blame anyone for feeling miserable, least of all someone whose entire existence is a zero-sum game — but then again, that seems to apply to everyone in this drab and maddeningly cold environment, not just the doomed-to-abbreviated-existence robots (Replicants, they’re called) who set the story of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner into motion. Given the world meticulously created by Scott, one has no trouble accepting that a subset of agonized humanoids might take out their fear and loathing in less than savory ways.

Rather, what one has trouble with is the idea that anyone would want to live and breathe in this shithole of a world to start with. Because nihilism and cynicism are all that Blade Runner‘s 2019 L.A. has to offer — and it’s finally as empty-headed and silly as any utopian Things to Come vision. If there’s a utility to this risibly stupid film, it’s that it does in the end somewhat justify the tragically self-serious nature of most mainstream science fiction films from This Island Earth to The Day the Earth Froze: at least those films were born out of a yearning for understanding and a sense of, well, some kind of wonder. Scott’s sole interest is in nonsensical moralizing and, much more pressingly, making a movie that “looks” “cool.” Even Star Wars, though just as artistically and ideologically empty, had the excuse of primarily targeting children.

Make no mistake: the visual pyrotechnics here are something to behold, and one assumes that’s all the more true on a large cinema screen. In any context, though, Scott, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and production designer Lawrence Paull do far more to pull you into the murky, drab but identifiably “futurist” world of the film than does the very poor script by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples. I cannot claim authority on how well the screenplay translates Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but I highly doubt it’s faithful or worthy — it’s not just that the story as the film presents it is lacking in nuance and character, it’s that it’s really astonishingly turgid and awful, insipid and cartoonishly violent, so painfully slow and dramatically inept as to be nauseating. It’s also, frankly, not much of a story anyway, more of a threadbare conceit: a few of the Replicants are hiding out, besieged by bounty hunter / blade runner Harrison Ford, all leading to a very protracted tête-à-tête with a lot of (apparently improvised) sentimental mumbo jumbo about tears in rain and being “a slave,” because slavery is a concept this silly pastiche of bubblegum cards and Asimov’s Science Fiction back issues really needs to take a bite of.

The chase through the dystopian landscape of hollow commercialism, big bulky social commentary on the part of a director who’s never been terribly fond of subtlety, stands merely as an excuse to show off that landscape, those lovingly garish exteriors and shadowy, dimly lit sets. A quick comparison to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, unleashed three years later, shows how little Blade Runner even tries to live up to its own promise; not only is there something faintly cliched and obvious about its nightmare vision of America’s destiny, it has no insight into the things it pretends to be greatly worried about, and certainly not a trace of wit about them. The Replicants who’ve taken refutge in L.A. to try and fight for their lives (by the way, half the people in the film including Harrison Ford (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) may or may not be Replicants too, man, because Scott thinks that’s really deep) kill some people in pointlessly excruciating acts of eye-bulging, cheek-ripping violence well matched by the lovely visual of Ford watching a lady he’s chasing through some plate glass prop windows get cut to ribbons; these are just impassioned bids for more life by “people” who’ve been created just to serve.

The best we can say about the majority of 20th century science fiction is that its highest purpose was as veiled political commentary; Dick’s original story probably has a touch of something to say, but in so many modern films that try and put such things into practice, an endless stream of dull exposition is the result, rendering the stories finally far too direct and literal, thus rather juvenile. Blade Runner juggles a bit of this with the clumsy presentation of its central high concept, but it’s so much more interested in “style” than its easily discarded “plot” that we actually come away with the opposite problem, a film that does so little work to actually connect that it’s nearly incoherent — and, considering its status among cinephiles, incredibly boring. Retreaded, lazy cynicism would wear you down even if it were well-acted, which this certainly is not.

Ford is one thing — he only ever knew how to play one character: a wisecracking, smirking, scrawnier version of a young John Wayne without the broad-shouldered macho sensuality (or the foolish jingoism). A fourth-hand caricature of a put-upon Dashiel Hammett hero we’re pretending is a bounty hunter and not a hard-drinking private eye is too much of a stretch; knowing Ridley Scott, Ford was probably directed to talk in a monotone for the duration of this film, and he still sounds out of his league. His clueless facial expressions don’t help; the protagonist of a picture probably shouldn’t look as baffled at its story as the audience is. (By his own admission, Ford had no idea what was going on during most of the shoot.) But he’s Clark goddamn Gable compared to nearly everyone else here. In most cases, it’s a matter of poorly conceived stunt casting: Sean Young’s humanity is supposed to be ambiguous and her method of getting this across is to dart her eyes around the room, never land on anything, and look mournfully confused. Darryl Hannah’s entrance as some sort of life-size variant on Claire Griswold’s doll character in the Twilight Zone episode “Miniature” might be an agreeably surreal glimpse into Scott’s psyche if it seemed to have anything in the world to do with any of the other shit that’s happening here, but nope.

Of all the ludicrously bad acting in this film, most of which can be blamed on a picture and director that placed all of its emphasis on lights, glitter and machines, the inexplicably praised, incompetent performance by Rutger Hauer stands out harshly above all else. He’s a whopper of tonedeaf comic-book supervillainy whose gym-class histrionics call to mind Billy Idol, or Sting circa “Synchronicity II.” When he mellows out and finally resigns himself to his fate, we don’t get a slight nod of the head in the vein of Orson Welles in The Third Man, cause that’d have some trace of restraint and elegance; we get an endless stream of ad-libbed high school poetry that evidently is actually an improvement on whatever nonsense Peoples and Fancher had scribbled in the shooting script. The weight of sorrow at this conclusion is meant to crush us with the knowledge of the doom that faces all of the Replicants (as a conveniently on-the-nose philsophy professor puts it on cue, “It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?”) — but such protest and grief is wholly unearned when the film holds us at arm’s length for its entirety, its awkward and stilted dialogue unable to make up the difference.

The final result, for all its self-loathing spectacle (it seems to hate the things it loves showing us, like a Christian propaganda film about sex, probably directed by Steven Soderbergh), feels like puerile, sax-solo sleaze on a level with the kind of stuff that used to run on Showtime at 3 in the morning. Its expensive art direction and visual effects are all that can elevate it from the shallowest end of cheaply moral, flashy Hollywood cinema. What’s worst of all is the way it rides so gleefully on the coattails of better films: 2001 most obviously, but also the legitimately atmospheric crime films of the ’40s. Blade Runner is really less a sci-fi picture — most of its sci-fi content is told rather than shown, after all — than a drab, pretentious pseudo-noir that wants all the effect of that genre without doing the actual work. The script certainly fails to justify any co-opting of noir texture: Ford’s character isn’t an anti-hero, he isn’t fleshed out enough to leave any impression at all, and the giddy comparisons to classic detective fic only qualify if you think sleepily watching someone play Myst is akin to reading Raymond Chandler.

As you know, there are quite a few versions of this movie floating around. For this project, I watched the so-called Final Cut, released in 2007. I had always thought of Blade Runner as a terribly grim and humorless concoction, so it actually surprised me that it’s worse than I remembered. I genuinely thought I was going to enter this version fresh, sixteen years down the line (saw the Director’s Cut in 1997), and discover a heretofore unappreciated masterpiece and find myself able to engage in all of the conversations about the film. No dice — exactly the things that bugged me back then still bother me, and now more so. It leaves me cold and angry. But I stray so far from the consensus on this one, even among people who agree with me about Star Wars and The Godfather, that all these years I tended to wonder if there was some ingrained bias deep in my brain that I couldn’t detect, because I don’t know any other reason why I’d be way over here and everyone else would be over there. I gotta admit, if this didn’t have the reputation it does, I would be giving it a lower rating. But no. I’m positive that it’s a bad movie, desiged to bait me and discredit me. I’m on to you people now. And all these movie reviews will sink away — sink away like water, in a drain, on the moon, in the future. It’s hard being on the opposite end of an opinion about something. But when you really think about it, aren’t we all? On opposite ends? Of walls? In a room? I ask you, which one of us is truly free?

I put it to you
that no one
is free

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