Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Blade Runner

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 97
Year: 1982
Writer: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples (adaptation), Philip K. Dick (novel)
Director: Ridley Scott
Star: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young

Note: As with the other films on the AFI Top 100 which have alternate or extended editions, this article will be discussing the original theatrical version.

The world of “Blade Runner” is one of the greatest in film history. It takes place in near future Los Angeles (where it rains every day instead of its current constantly sunny state) where skyscrapers are bursting with polluted fire and one layer of grime is piled on top of another, less stable, layer of dirt. The Tyrell Corporation at the center of everything is a fantastically designed, intricately created piece of architecture that you find yourself pausing your DVD to drink in. There are so many details that are stuffed into every frame, my favorite being the light-up umbrellas, that at times you feel as if you’ve wandered into a Terry Gilliam movie. The movie’s look has rightly become a touchtone for hundreds of futuristic worlds. It’s not a place you want to live, or visit, but one you must experience.

But the rest of “Blade Runner”? Meh.

Harrison Ford heads the movie as a detective named Deckard, who is assigned to track down four escaped Replicants and kill them. These Replicants are created by the aforementioned Tyrell Corporation, and seem human in almost every way. After a few years they even begin to develop emotions, which is one of the reasons they’ve been outlawed on earth. Rutger Hauer is the leader of the Replicants, who also includes Daryl Hannah. We also meet Tyrell himself (Joe Turkel), who has crafted a new Replicant named Rachel (Sean Young) who believes she is human.

There are “big” questions at play here, like what is the real measure of a man and what it truly means to be human. The writers, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, introduce these conceits and then pay them just enough attention to gloss them over and move on. I’m not asking for answers, obviously, but it would be nice to have them addressed and argued in an interesting, thought-provoking way. Instead the ideas are brought onstage and then forgotten about because…oh look! A big skyscraper with a Geisha projected on it!

Perhaps part of the problem is that I just don’t give a damn about any of the characters. Near the end of the second act, Hauer’s Replicant breaks into Tyrell’s home and threatens him, wanting to have a longer life and begging for answers to why he exists. The scene is directly inspired by Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but the difference is that in the novel, both men are monsters that we sympathize with and understand. Here we’ve barely seen the Replicant for more than five minutes and intensely dislike Tyrell already, so the scene has no drive. Who cares if the Replicant gets his answers and who cares if his creator dies?

Thank God director Ridley Scott cast Harrison Ford in the lead, because he lends gravitas to a role that is thinly written. At best. Just because a character is supposed to be cut off from his emotions does not mean that he can’t be interesting or engaging. Instead we get a character who visually looks like he’s really constipated. Then we’re given plenty of unnecessary voiceover that spoon-feeds us what he’s supposed to be feeling at any given moment (along with unnecessary exposition we could have figured out ourselves). Of course, then there are the none-too-subtle hints that Deckard may in fact be a Replicant, but really, who cares? If we aren’t invested in Deckard as a human being, why should it matter if he’s not what he seems and is unaware of it.

Deckard falls in love with Rachel, which in theory could have been very fascinating, especially since his mission in life is to destroy her kind. In reality, the romance is barely sketched and just when we get hints that it will become interesting, Rachel is yanked off-screen and doesn’t come back until the final scene.

The entire thing comes to a head in an old apartment building called the Bradbury (obviously named as an homage to Ray Bradbury, who I’m betting could have written a much more insightful and emotionally complete version of this story). First up is a legitimately cool fight scene between Deckard and Hannah’s Replicant, which I wish would have lasted longer. Then there’s a way-too-long cat-and-mouse game between Deckard and Hauer’s Replicant where we’re never quite sure of the logistics of the large apartment they are chasing one another through. Deckard climbs up toward the roof when he should be heading down the fire escape (why do people always do that!?), then drops his gun and doesn’t bother to go back for it (why do people always do that!?). The stuff on the roof has some impressive special effects, but how many variations on this scene have we seen, including several in the AFI Top 100 alone? For my money, the coolest is still the finale to “Batman,” (sorry, “Vertigo”) and this one doesn’t measure up.

I understand how much impact this film has had on science fiction of the last thirty years, and know that’s why it was placed on the Top 100, though I’d argue that Scott’s “Alien” would have been a better choice. But looking at it today, it seems like a simplistic take on ideas and concepts that have been told much better elsewhere. Television shows like “Battlestar Galactica” and films like “Dark City” and “Serenity” are obvious offspring of “Blade Runner,” and both eclipse it in terms of quality and depth. It’s an important film to see, and it opened the door to many wonderful stories, but it just doesn’t hold up.

My Score (out of 5): **1/2

Addendum: The DVD contains five (five!) different variations on this film, and I do prefer the “Final Cut” to the original theatrical version. The deletion of the voiceover was a smart move, as was the abbreviated ending, but ultimately did not change my feelings for the film in a profound way.

1 comment:

Nick said...

I agree with everything you've said. I've always thought 'Blade Runner' was vastly overrated.

The bottom line, as you point out, is that we just don't care enough about the characters. All the eye candy in the world can't make up for that.

One aspect you haven't mentioned is the music. It might have been a popular choice when the film was released, but Vangelis' synth score dates 'Blade Runner' terribly, forever tying it to the early-to-mid 1980s. This works against the idea that we're supposed to be watching a story set in a dystopian future!