EDITOR’S NOTE: If ever there were a film on which Cinefantastique missed the boat, it was BLADE RUNNER. Sure, the film received cover-story treatment in the special July-August 1982 double issue (Volume 12:5 and 12:6), including two capsule reviews that were mostly positive; however, when it came time for a full-length review in the next issue (13:1), the attitude turned dismissive. Over the next decade, the film’s reputation grew, leading to the 1992 theatrical release of the so-called Director’s Cut, at which time the magazine printed a revised review. With the new DVD release today of BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT, we present Cinefantastique’s original reaction to the film.
Ridley Scott must learn that films can’t live by design alone
Review by Jordan R. Fox
“There are certain moments in movies where the background can be as important as the actor,” proclaims director Ridley Scott. “The design of a film is the script.” Scott is a supreme visual stylist with a gift for design unequalled among contemporary directors, but he’s wrong. Design is a vital element, especially if the audience is to accept anyone’s physically imposing vision of the future, but staggering technical virtuosity – in and of itself – can never replace character and story values. And this realization points out Scott’s fatal flaw.
BLADE RUNNER proffers a thousand-course feast for the eyes, but only bread and water for the mind and spirit. Never before has the future looked like this: amazingly detailed; persuasively real (most of the time), in an everyday, lived-in way; drenched with rich, contributive atmospherics; tinged with vivid and nightmarish, yet oddly compelling, shadings.
Had Scott cared to extend this lavish attention beyond the film’s settings, we might now be contemplating a fully-realized masterpiece. By falling well short of classic status, given the great potential implicit in the material and the film’s undeniable achievements, the film taps a keener disappointment than would be felt in the presence of lesser ambition and lesser results.
The opening sequence ranks with the most astounding introductions to a film ever seen. Our grand approach through the Hades landscape is reflected in the iris of a single observer. Unless this constitutes a flash-forward, the observer inside the airborne spinner car, as it glides down towards the Tyrell Pyramid, cannot be ex-blade runner Deckard, whom we don’t meet until the noodle-bar scene. But metaphorically, it is Deckard – with his point-of-view standing in for our own. It is also the film’s last direct, personal link between the protagonist and his milieu.
But soon we are into Deckard’s lackluster, redundant narrative (with one or two revealing exceptions: “Sushi,” says Deckard. “That’s what my ex-wife used to call me: cold fish.”), and the dynamics of a simplistic android hunt. The weak, thin script Scott filmed seems closer to the earlier Hampton Fancher drafts than the David Peoples rewrite, which source novel author Philip H. Dick said had saved the script. Very little of the dimension and thematic subtext screenwriter David Peoples supposedly put back in the story seems in evidence.
While the source novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) is ultimately unsatisfying, Dick’s stimulating moral and philosophical concerns, his flawed – yet sympathetic – human characters, and his unique approach were sustaining by themselves. Ridley Scott is certainly under no obligation to film the book, but he can’t blithely jettison the book’s thematic core without replacing it.
In the future depicted in the novel, depopulation is the result of limited nuclear war, radical climate change, and heavy off-world migration. Most animals are extinct, those that remain are considered almost sacred, and ownership of animoid simulacra is common. Yet “human” android life holds no value at all. Those who hunt down androids illegally on Earth dare not feel sorry (develop empathy) for them. In order to survive, methods employed by hunter and hunted further blur the distinction between them. Certainly, Dick’s novel suggested much that could have enriched Scott’s regulation chase structure without weighing it down: the room is there in the film’s pacing, which is too measured and deliberate for an action piece.
BLADE RUNNER nods in the direction of this missing emotional center through the somewhat more nuanced characters of Pris (Hannah) and J. F. Sebastian (Sanderson), and the plight of the android Rachael, a virtual human being with fictitious memories, but not autonomous identity. The muted romance between Deckard and Rachael also remains undeveloped. It falls to Harrison Ford and the affecting Sean Young to try to fill the void – an extreme request to make of them. It’s to their credit that what little empathy the film engenders doesn’t all go to the hunted replicants.
In terms of film noir, BLADE RUNNER is more than an homage, but less than the genuine article. Deckard can’t be a true noir hero. He’s not in the grip of alienation or obsession-his world is second-nature to him; his attitude towards it remains unexpressed in any meaningful way – nor is he governed by a truly fatalistic outlook. Being weary and battered aren’t adequate noir credentials. In the end, Deckard confronts little besides physical danger.
Rather, it’s the style, the flavor, the look and feel of film noir that is BLADE RUNNER’S triumph. Jordan Cronenweth’s captivating photography relies on the diffusive properties of steam and smoke, as much as oil the familiar noir chiaroscuro. Rachael, beautifully lit and shot through the curling cigarette smoke, is at once real and ethereal, mysteriously alluring and sublimely romantic. The film’s abundance of striking images should give Cronenweth an early lead on the next cinematography Oscar.
Too much praise cannot be heaped on Lawrence Paull’s production design. From the choked and threatening streets of 2019 Los Angeles, to the classically clean lines of Tyrell’s deco-Egyptian office, we are arrestingly transported to the unique vision of BLADE RUNNER’S world. Syd Mead’s vehicles, accessories (the Voight-Kampff and Esper machines are terrific entries in the annals of detection) and basic design philosophy lend to the overall aura of functionality. While Scott’s insistence on “layering” builds a powerful verisimilitude, even as the accretive detail comes to exceed what can be absorbed in one or even two viewings.
Accomplishments in t other technical areas reach similar heights. The BLADE RUNNER miniature crew’s contribution approaches the nonpareil standard set by Greg Jein in Spielberg’s 1941, with only the roof and spires of the Tyrell Pyramid betraying a trace of model-kit origin. The aerial tours of “Ridleyville” by spinner car, courtesy of the motion-control magic of Doug Trumbull’s Effects Engineering Group, is fully convincing and never less than breathtaking; their optical work breaks new ground in sophistication and complexity.
A fitting counterpart to these awesome sights is Vangelis’ soulful score, accented by coolly weaving sax lines, snatches of mournful geisha ballad, and assorted wails. Soaring and eloquent, it is grandeur without pomposity, supplying much of the feeling that script and Scott refuse to.
As a director, Scott is really in his element with stylish bravura scenes – all the while retaining command over the total visual environment. The pursuit and retirement of Zhora (a bit overdone , in a perfectionist, TV-commercial way); Batty’s murder of his maker, with its overtones of Greek tragedy and the Frankenstein story; Deckard’s deadly gymnastic interlude with Pris; and the cleverly staged final chase through, up, and over the Bradbury Building – all are set-pieces put over forcefully and with impressive flair. Furthermore, he is nearly as adept in the execution of quieter and romantic scenes.
But, ultimately, it is Scott’s indifference to real story substance, backed up by some human emotion, that does him in. Even in a taut, spare, strictly action-orientated film like BULLITT, director Pear Yates managed to include a final shot of Steve McQueen glancing into a mirror, his reflection questioning the true cost of his profession.
What we are left with is a storehouse of tantalizing questions and unexplored possibilities. In BLADE RUNNER, Ridley Scott wanted to avoid making an “esoteric” film. But with this fascinating, maddening, unique science-fiction film, he has leaned too far in the opposite direction.
BLADE RUNNER (1982). Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick. Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmett Walsh, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joanna Cassidy, Joe Turkell, James Hong, Morgan Paull.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For comparison purposes, here are the two capsule comments that ran in the BLADE RUNNER double issue:
A poignant, bitterly flawed poem. There are several scenes so moving in their spiriitual humility that they verge on the hurtful, and ths accomplishment (coupled with the most convincingly detailed future world ever commited to film) is too rare to admire grudgingly. It’s not perfect – it’s overtextured, erratically structured, and a little too heavy on the Vangelis score. Harrison Ford’s monotone narration – in which he sounds more bored than jaded, more fed-up than hard-boiled – is the worst problem.
– Tim Lucas
A true original. Even though it has no story to speak of, it wins hands down on its visual style. Some of the images are staggering. I got the feeling I was watching a true science fiction films for the first time. The production design is supert, all ’40s costumes, Scott’s stock-in-trade smoky atmosphere, and credible depiction of a future L.A. Also features the best Douglas Trumbull special effects yet.
– Alan Jones