Film Noir Futurism
Based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner has a deceptively simple and very captivating overall story. Set in an alternative 2019 A.D. future, a special police outfit - the "Blade Runner" unit - has the job of killing human-like androids called "Replicants" who have grown dangerous in their dissatisfaction with an unequal labor-class status and expiration date. It just so happens that four nasty Replicants have recently come back to Earth and need to be whacked - and the best needs to be called in to eradicate them: former Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). The story is a simple one on the surface but it becomes profound and complex when one looks deeper.
Both Harrison Ford and Philip K. Dick have described Blade Runner not as "science fiction" but as "futurism." For all intents and purposes, Blade Runner rightfully belongs inside the sci-fi genre; however, the distinction between "science fiction" and "futurism" is that the world we see depicted in Blade Runner is not supposed to be viewed as scientific fantasy but as actually containing concepts that are destined to come to fruition in the foreseeable future. The corporatism, class divide, police state and runaway technological dangers are very apparent in our society today and similar entities exist throughout Blade Runner, the film means to not simply entertain but also comment on the present state of life and society and the direction it heads. Blade Runner is deeply thematic and character-centered at the same time. Replicants are machines created by humans - but they view their existence as life and hold the same questions that humans do: "why were we created?" Clearly a film noir detective story inside a recognizable science fiction setting, themes about identity, love, the dangerous of playing God and the preciousness of life are what really define Blade Runner.
The story is excellent but the atmosphere generated by the featured setting and visuals - thanks to the amazing art-direction, score, cinematography, and, of course, the direction under Ridley Scott - is the most interesting aspect of the film. Blade Runner was not Scott's first foray into the cinematic world of science fiction; his second film, Alien (1979), was a horror/sci-fi hybrid that would become regarded a classic. The differences between Alien and Blade Runner speaks to Scott's diverse range as a director but one feels regret that Scott did not return more often to the sci-fi genre as both films are two of his finest films. Scott has a unique way of transmitting his cinematic vision and creating atmosphere through visuals. One of the reasons for this (on top of the fact that he usually chooses talented people to work with him) has to be related to the fact that Scott actually began his career as a set designer as opposed to a director and subsequently has a particularly keen eye for visuals - and Blade Runner features one of the most striking and memorable settings ever created for a film. Gathering from a number of behind-the-scene documentaries and quotes from various writing, production, cast and crew members, Blade Runner seems as if it was a tough shoot due to stress and confrontations from creative disagreements as well as time and budgetary constraints. The hard work of the cast and crew paid off however, as Blade Runner is one of the most visually-stunning films ever made.
Despite this futuristic LA being buried under a technological nightmare, a certain beauty shines through Blade Runner in a way that is simply unparalleled. The special effects (lead by the man behind the effects of such science fiction films as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979): Douglas Trumbull)) and art-direction teams put together a very interesting film universe for Blade Runner. The creative structures, brilliant effects and clever set dressings that make up a futuristic L.A. had a profound impact on author Philip K. Dick, saying that the film depicted the setting "exactly as how [he] imagined it." Likewise, the cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth (Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)) is some of the finest ever achieved in film history. Scott and Cronenweth create a futuristic film noir-like atmospheric look that compliments the very film noir-like story. The degree of light and shadow in each scene is simply stunning and many grand shots of the giant futuristic city fill the film's reels. Blade Runner works as one of the best post-1950s films noir as well as one of the best sci-fi films through the incredible look assembled by a very talented group.
The sights are breathtaking but the sounds are emotionally commanding as well. The score for Blade Runner, written by Vangelis (Chariots of Fire (1981)), is one of the most powerful and memorable elements of the film. I will even take that one step further and declare it one of the finest scores ever composed for a film, acting as both an integral part of Blade Runner and as a stand-alone piece of music. The soundtrack is almost a companion piece to the film itself; the score that can be heard in the film barely scratches the surface of the amount of music that Vangelis actually wrote. Really the only aspect of Blade Runner that is recognizably 1980s (as the film itself is pretty far removed from anything else released in that decade), some say that Vangelis' score dates the film. I disagree. The score sounds to me like the perfect type of music for a futuristic setting, especially for the very contemplative, dark and manufactured nature of Blade Runner. Then again, I like progressive rock bands like Rush, Genesis and Pink Floyd and most of Vangelis' Blade Runner score is basically a synthesized psychedelic groove - so it is practically tailor-made for my tastes. Even if one considers the score dated, it is clear that Blade Runner is not complete without Vangelis' mood-setting melodies.
The story, themes, visuals and music really define the emotional aspect of Blade Runner but the first aspect some may notice about the film is the now-recognizable cast led by Harrison Ford. As "Blade Runner" Rick Deckard, Ford is at his personal career best in my mind. Ford delivers a classic portrayal of a film noir detective set in 2019: smart, cynical, intense and unrelenting in the completion of his mission, Ford's detective Deckard fits in perfectly with other classic film noir greats like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum (who screenwriter Hampton Fancher originally thought of for the role), while also remaining unique unto himself. Ford would grumble through the grueling shoot but his largely quiet and subtle performance in Blade Runner is particularly unique among his filmography.
Blade Runner features a number of recognizable faces: M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple (1984)) is very memorable as the ball-busting, smarmy cop Bryant; Daryl Hannah (Splash (1984)) is great in one of her first film roles as the deceptive Pris, a "pleasure model" Replicant; and a Edward James Olmos ("Battlestar Galactica") had a unique contribution to the film as Gaff with a scene-stealing and almost creepy presence and basically inventing the film's street language. A very young Sean Young gives a soft and touching portrayal of Rachael in this film. Disconcerted over her recent life-changing discovery, Rachael is introduced to a life of fear and conflicting feelings for Deckard. The audience begins to really understand and empathize with the life and feelings of a Replicant through Rachael thanks to the wonderful performance from Sean Young. Rutger Hauer nearly runs away with the entire show as the dangerous and desperate Roy Batty. Unlike Rachael, Hauer's Roy is the embodiment of the frightful dark side of the Replicant. However, behind his murderous actions and feverish state of mind, Roy's passion for life and fear of death is a very powerful part of the film. Hauer gives an unforgettable performance; balancing the many different facets of Roy to create a very interesting character. Back in 1982, this extraordinary cast was made up of virtually unknown actors (outside of Ford) but all are uniquely excellent as they bring life to their characters and the film as a whole.
Blade Runner is actually available in three different versions:
1) the original theatrical cut
2) the director's cut
3) the final cut
The original cut of the film was released theatrically in 1982 but, because of dissatisfied test audiences and subsequent studio pressure, Scott was forced to add clarifying 40s noir throwback-style narration throughout the film, edit out various scenes and create a different ending than what was originally intended. Although Scott was unhappy with this original cut and many fans do not prefer it, I really enjoy the original cut. As a big fan of film noir, I dig the narration.
A "director's cut" was assembled and re-released in 1992 and is easily my least favorite of the three versions. This so-called "director's cut" is actually not much of a director's cut at all because director Ridley Scott had little to no input as it was rushed through production. The "director's cut" was important to the film's legacy however; the narration was removed and some deleted scenes were included that introduced audiences to the film's ambiguous elements that were forcibly edited out of the original theatrical cut. Unfortunately, the "director's cut" features pieces from other films, does not add in enough of the deleted scenes to make a coherent picture and subsequently looks and feels strange compared to the other versions.
A "final cut" of Blade Runner was released on DVD as a part of the film's 25th anniversary and is the superior cut in my opinion. Scott was finally able to, after 25 years, edit the film the way he wanted! This final cut features no narration (as much as I do like it in the original cut, it is not needed), many originally deleted scenes were restored and an ambiguous nature results, creating an opportunity for the viewer to come their own conclusions about the story and characters.
Blade Runner was met with a lukewarm reception by critics and audiences during its 1982 theatrical run. However, like many great films misunderstood at the time of their original release, many critics are now reassessing their earlier criticisms and new audiences are being introduced to Blade Runner with each passing year. The various versions have helped moviegoers grow to appreciate the film and, really, every cut of the film is great: all have their own merits and the fact that there are even three cuts of the film adds to its overall unmatched uniqueness. The 80s have a reputation of perhaps not being the classiest decade as far as fashion, music and artistic style are concerned but a number of films stand out as really timeless works of art. Films of the 1980s by and large had a certain discernible look and feel to them but some films, like Amadeus (1984) and Henry V (1989), have a particular timelessness about them; Blade Runner is an easy addition to this list as the cinematic crown jewel of the 1980s. Combining two of my favorite film genres - film noir and science fiction - Blade Runner is a remarkable film and one of my personal favorites no matter which way you "cut" it.
CBC Rating: 10/10