By Kris Tronerud
Blade Runner – 1982- dir. Ridley Scott – Official Trailer
All these moments will be lost… in time… like tears in the rain…
— Rutger Hauer to Harrison Ford in Blade Runner
When Blade Runner was finally released in 1982, after a long, arduous and grueling production history, marked by equal measures of technical difficulty and personal turmoil, it met with a decisively lukewarm reception from a confused and disappointed public. In the wake of Harrison’s Ford’s sudden rise to stardom in Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, adoring new fans expected to see ‘Indiana’ in another riproaring, uplifting sci-fi epic. What they got was a dark and dystopian dreamscape of a movie, a violent futurist nightmare with the heart of a classic private eye noir, and a lot more on its mind than explosions and derring-do. Additionally saddled with a lugubrious studio endorsed faux Raymond Chandler narration (which Ford purposely read in as expressionless a manner as possible, hoping the studio would drop it) and a mawkish ‘happy’ ending based on unused footage from, of all things, The Shining, Blade Runner was doomed in its initial run; but over the years, a number of different cuts of the film appeared on tape, laser disc, and in festival showings (a total of seven discrete versions, according to Paul Sammon’s terrific essay “The Seven Faces of Blade Runner“) provoking continued fan interest and debate, and with the release in 1992 of the Official Director’s Cut, this emotionally charged, visually resplendent film was, finally, properly acknowledged as Ridley Scott’s masterwork, and quite arguably, the best science fiction film of all time.
Based on the 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by sci-fi master Philip K. Dick (other Dick-based films run from the superb Minority Report to the execrable Total Recall, but Runner remains the first, and still best, adaptation of Dick’s work) Blade Runner takes place on a pollution-racked, rain-soaked and decaying planet Earth, in a time when the powerful and privileged have long since fled to far flung space colonies to live a lifestyle maintained and protected by armies of hyper humanized androids, or ‘replicants’. The latest incarnation of these sophisticated humanoid creatures, the Nexus 6 , as a result of having been given artificial memories, the better to be controlled, have been inconveniently developing self-awareness and real emotions; and, like most oppressed beings whose needs and humanity go unrecognized, have begun a furious and bloody revolt. Called in to ‘retire’ four replicant escapees, including ‘pleasure model’ Pris (Darryl Hannah) and the brooding, angst-ridden ‘combat model’ Roy (Rutger Hauer), old-school retired cop Deckard (Ford, in his finest role) is brought out of retirement to ply his greatest skill: an almost preternatural ability to hunt down replicants, whom he stubbornly dismisses as machines. As the violence of the replicants, spurred on by a desperate search for a way to evade the built-in fail-safe of their 4-year lifespan, escalates, Deckard pursues his prey without pity. But, after doggedly hunting and brutally killing beautiful ‘assassin model’ Zhora (in a thrilling and disturbing chase setpeice drenched in blood and shattering glass), Deckard is inexplicably stricken with remorse… Is it due to his losing battle against falling in love with the stunning and ethereal experimental replicant Rachael (Sean Young), or does Deckard’s hatred of replicants reflect his own misdirected self loathing, born of a dawning realization of his own origins…
Script, acting and direction notwithstanding, great science fiction films stand or fall, finally, on the strength of their artificially rendered ‘authenticity’; and Blade Runner’s thought provoking, romantic story is mounted in the most believable and awe-inspiring ‘created world’ ever designed for film; a jaw dropping and unforgettable visual landscape which stands as the best, most convincing argument against the current all-pervasive dominance of computer generated imagery, or CGI. While CGI can slavishly imitate the surfaces, textures and movements of the real world, nothing takes the place of a real object in real space captured by a camera on film, and the model-based backdrop envisioned by effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull and production designer Syd Meade is, in its richly imagined detail and uncanny and seamless incorporation of actual Los Angeles locations (The Bradbury Apartments, The Bonaventure Hotel, Union Sation and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House) with their gorgeously wrought models and the legendary MGM backlot ‘city street set’ presents this anti-utopian environment with such unimpeachable realism that our disbelief is successfully and permanently suspended from the opening frames. Without the “oh yeah, right…” reaction that generally accompanies even the most expensive CGI, we are allowed to be swept, without the distractions of cheap fakery and bombast, into Blade Runner’s difficult, demanding, and arrestingly romantic story, unimpeded. While the rich, multi-textured and multi-layered score of Vangelis (unfairly dismissed as the composer of the pedestrian and tediously over-referenced Chariots of Fire) is rightly noted for its sweeping swathes of epic synth and late-night noirish piano themes, it just as often seeps into and melds with Peter Pennell’s superb sound design, as tactile visuals, sounds and music combine into the vast tapestry of rain-soaked metal, stone and glass which is the LA of Blade Runner’s near and melancholy future.
That other Achilles heel of much science fiction cinema , the corny, overwrought hammery of bad acting by cardboard characters, is also conspicuously missing in Blade Runner. The film is blessed with a sparse and tersely eloquent script, and is packed with canny, colourful performances by such character notables as M. Emmet Walsh and Edward James Olmos as Deckard’s police handlers, the great Joanna Cassidy as doomed hitlady/stripper Zhora, Darryll Hannah as the punkish and deadly Pris, James Hong, hilarious as eye designer Hannibal Chew, and especially William (Newhart’s ‘my other brother Darryl’) Sanderson in a surprisingly subtle turn as the replicants’ pathetic co-creator Sebastian; and Ford is desperately convincing and affecting as a seemingly ordinary guy caught up in a most extraordinary situation; unable to stop his destructive pursuit of Pris and Roy even as its essential injustice and his own true nature are slowly and surely dawning on him. The life of the film, however, belongs equally to two actors whose performances here belie the unfortunate arc of their careers in the 25+ years since Runner. As Rachael, the soulful android who clings mournfully to memories that she knows are artificial, Sean Young is hypnotic and drenched in sadness; vulnerable and irresistible. And, as the tortured, anguished Roy, whose demand for justice and recognition as he rails against the approaching darkness render him more heartrendingly ‘human’ than many of Runner’s actual humans, Rutger Hauer delivers the performance of a lifetime: majestic, and at once childlike and terrifying, Hauer compels us sympathize with, and even root for, an often repellent character who has, as Roy tells Deckard “done some questionable things…” As Roy’s frantic search for meaning and affirmation lead him to a confrontation with his ‘maker’ that evokes myths from Prometheus to Frankenstein, Hauer’s performance is a wonder of controlled rage and afflicted pathos; ironically, the elegiac rooftop passing of this supposedly non-human character is one of the great death scenes in film. While both these actors have continued to work steadily and creditably over the years, Young’s personal demons, and Hauer’s typecasting as an otherworldly plot device have resulted in the unfortunate underuse of their considerable talents; one hopes that career-resurrecting roles still lie in their futures.
It’s too bad she won’t live… but then again, who does?
— Edward James Olmos to Harrison Ford in Blade Runner
Complementing its fine performances and stunning production, and further distinguishing Blade Runner from the competition, is its unusual and compelling sense of poetry. The thread of tears – Rachael’s gentle weeping as she is rebuffed by Deckard’s initial rejection of her ‘humanity’, the constant refrain of rainfall, and Roy’s dying ‘tears in the rain’ metaphor; and the recurring imagery of eyes (traditionally proffered as the window to the soul) – The extreme close-ups of eyes that open the film, the iris scans of the ‘Voigt-Kampf test’, Pris’ shamanesque eye makeup, the artificial owl that glides though the hallways of the Tyrell corporation, impassively peering at its creators; even the method of Roy’s killing his creator – all hauntingly suggest the central questions of Blade Runner: What makes up a soul? How do we access that soul? What makes us ‘human’? And who decides? Key also are the origami figures left everywhere by the seemingly callous cop Gaff (Olmos), and the fake family photos to which the replicants cling so dearly (even Deckard’s second victim, the brutish Leon [Bryon James] is obsessed with retrieving his snapshots). Much has been made of Blade Runner’s metaphorical evocations of social ills, from racial and sexual prejudice to the then nascent AIDS crisis; today, in the wake of our increased awareness of the tragic dilemma of Alzheimer’s, Runner, with its central emphasis on the crucial importance of memory in the human makeup, is newly and poignantly relevant.
In the age of DVD, ‘Director’s Cut’ has come to be associated with self-serving assertions of studio interference with the creative vision, accompanied by the equally self-indulgent addition of bloated, often gratuitous material better left on the cutting room floor. In the case of Blade Runner however, a few simple but crucial changes (along with a newly minted print) have rendered perfect an already powerful and nearly perfect film. The addition of the brief but all-important ‘unicorn’ shot in the film’s first third, the removal of the silly ‘happy ending’ shot at its conclusion (the ending actually still remains very cautiously hopeful), and the excision of that hamhandedly obvious and completely unnecessary narration, have restored Ridley Scott’s ambitiously thoughtful and completely thrilling meditation on no less than the nature of consciousness itself, to its highly original and riveting self.