- For reasons known only to the cinema gods, I managed to miss watching Blade Runner when it premiered in 1982 and in every year since. Until, of course, its much-anticipated sequel Blade Runner 2049 came on the horizon, a very close horizon at this point in time, and I decided it was time to make up for this major omission. Here are my thoughts …
There are a few reassuring constants in science-fiction, a genre that is generally the home of the unexpected, the surprising and the highly imaginative.
One is that most narratives will feature a revealing look, to some degree, at the human condition; after all, no matter whether there are aliens and strange worlds without number or a future so advanced all those dreams of flying cars and compliant robots have come true, people remain people, with foibles, flaws, and hopefully, a redeeming trait or two.
Dystopian near futures and AIs with some degree of resentment towards their human overlords also feature heavily, as does a beguiling mix of past and imagined, often retro-influenced, future.
All of these elements have been drawn, and with great original voice, into Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a film which upon its release in 1982, polarised opinion between those who recognised its innate genius and others who felt it took a few creative risks too many and offered a film that was a tad too experimental, even for a genre where this should be par for the course.
Possessing a heavy film noir sensibility, both visually and narratively, Blade Runner tells the story of a near-future reality, November 2019 to be exact, in which humanity has driven animals largely to extinction – only the rich can afford the real thing; the good/bad news? Pigeons remain plentiful – urban landscapes are perpetually drenched in darkness and rain, and a Battlestar Galactica-esque cold war has broken out between humans and their unnervingly identical creations, replicants.
After one particularly brutal off-world rebellion – yes, we’ve made it into the solar system too, Earth’s colonies a lure for a beleaguered population – replicants, a slave labour force, are declared illegal on Earth and specially-trained police known as Blade Runners, such Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), hunt them down with a necessarily callous efficiency.
Thus it is that creator and creation are at each other’s throats, a low-level battle for supremacy on the human side of things, and simple survival on the part of the replicants, the newer models of which, Nexus 6, have an inbuilt kill switch that triggers when they reach four years of age.
A number of these bright and shiny, and quite determined, new models have killed a crew of 31 off-world, hightailed it to Earth where they are in search, although no one in authority knows this, for their “father”, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) via genetic engineer J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), who may have the knowledge to reverse the replicants genetically-programmed inability to live to a ripe, old age.
Rick Deckard is brought back from retirement to hunt down the four replicants who have made it back to Earth – leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Pris Stratton (Daryl Hannah), Zhora Salome (Joanna Cassidy) and Leon Kowalski (Brion James) – a task which he is manifestly reluctant to take on until the police, who occupy a privileged place in the heavily Asian-influenced megalopolis of Los Angeles, make it clear he doesn’t really have a choice.
That is, to all intents and purposes, the plot, a fairly lean, some might say threadbare, narrative that doesn’t seem capable of sustaining such an impressively creative, visually-rich and emotionally-dense film.
And yes it does, and does so, magnificently, with each replicant death a punctuation point in a story, based on Phillip K Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is never less than utterly engrossing.
Much its immersive appeal comes from the fact that Ridley Scott allows the 117-minute long film to move at a measured and thoughtful pace, letting the musically-nuanced and unexpectedly evocative music by Vangelis wash over you as flying cars poetically glide between buildings and Deckard walks the streets of the gritty urbanscape looking for his quarry.
Rather than the furiously-paced action thrillers of today, full of eye-popping colours, swift movement and dizzying connecting of the narrative dots, Blade Runner, which benefits immeasurably from the complex and luminously beautiful – yes it’s possible for even a dystopian city to be beautiful in its own decaying-and-yet-not way – cinematography of Jordan Cronenweth, takes its time, moving langorously between various plot points, to great effect.
It’s all long, lingering looks, thoughtful pauses, the journey is every bit as important as the destination, and while it does pick up the pace considerably in the blood and rain-soaked final act when Deckard and a mad as a cut replicant snake Batty face off on the rooftops, there is even then a sense of time taken, and taken well.
This uncharacteristic approach, from today’s perspective at least, of simply letting the story take its own sweet time, works wonderfully for the film which is as much, if not more, a rumination about what it means to be human – there are a great many people who believe that Deckard, like his love Rachael (Sean Young), is a replicant, thanks to his dreams of unicorns and noting of a spider in a bush outside his window – as it is about the hunt for the replicants.
The nuanced and layered screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples is philosophical and meditative with admirable consistency, using the action sequences, which possess their own dream-like beauty, to temporarily ramp up the pace before dropping it back down to a kindler, gentler momentum.
Blade Runner is a film that asks, in the grand tradition of science fiction, with an oblique urgency that never comes to clumsily dominate this most elegant of cinematic masterpieces, whether humans should really be killing their own creations, especially in a world where so much death has already left us, glitzy, neon-wrapped urbanity notwithstanding, standing on the precipice of moral, civilisational and physical extinction.
The movie is replete with grand questions, but even more so with an engaging humanity that emerges even through all the slo-mo narrative twists and turns and measured dialogue and emotional remoteness, and with a rich visual aesthetic that winningly combines ’40s art deco-hangover with a gritty 1950s retro-esque vision of the future.
Blade Runner exists in a world where for all the loss and diminution of civilisation, people hang on, as do their creations, with every one of them simply seeking to live life on their own terms.
It is an existential underpinning that gives this film a deep, resonant substance to go with its time-lavishing sensibility and visual richness, ensuring, in the process, that it is rightfully viewed as one of the great pillars, nay masterpieces, of science fiction cinematic storytelling.