Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why Blade Runner?

I have heard critics rave about Blade Runner (1982), saying it's "a great achievement" and "one of the most visionary sci-fi films of all time". These folks must be looking for something very different than I. I can understand why I did not watch it in high school - I had not yet acquired a taste for dark or Distopian art forms. My life was just too happy and simple. I tried to watch it some time during college but could not get past the first 15 minutes or so. First, it was inexorably slow and boring. I'm not an action junkie, but I could not seem to find anything to enage me into the story. Well, lo and behold, in order to blog about it, I viewed the theatrical cut in its entirety, which you can do online with a Netflix subscription. I still don't get it.

The film is an adaptation of a Philip K. Dicke novel done in film noir style in a futuristic setting. This style is difficult to pull off today since it has been caricatured for so many years. Yet Blade Runner does not really add anything new to it except the setting. Everything from the sleazy back street crime culture, to the lilting saxophone music, to the cheesy street-wise detective narration, the fatalistic love interest, except instead of a prostitute or struggling actress, the lady love is a misunderstood robot. Even the femme fatales are robots. Did Ridley Scott intend this to be comical? He did much better with Alien - oh wait, that was 3 years earlier. Harrison Ford was never a great actor, but I thought he was better cast as Han Solo in Star Wars and as Indiana Jones. The special effects were sufficient for their time, but after Star Wars set the bar 5 years prior, I don't think it deserves too much credit in that department either. And while we're on the big names, Vangelis wrote much better music for Chariots of Fire - oh wait, that was a year earlier. I am not saying that film noir can't be done effectively today. Just look at the narrative portions of the Watchmen as an example. But the key is that you need a real story to back it up. Watchmen starts with a murder mystery and leads up to a full fledged evil plot to conquer the world, etc. In Blade Runner, there's no real plot, no murder mystery, no twists of fate, just a cop trying to kill off the riff raff. The point seems to be to just revel in all things strange and grotesque.

Some people point to the exploration of how an android would deal with the prospect of its own immortality as a highlight. The first film that comes to my mind in that respect is 2001 with its treatment of HAL the super-computer, so the concept is not new. Since that theme is an important part of Dicke's novel, I'll bet it is treated more skillfully on paper. But let's face it, the credit in that respect goes to Dicke, not the film. I do, however, give credit to Rutger Hauer, who played the replicant leader. He really captured the strange juxtaposition of the rage of a man sentenced to death with the confusion and innocence of a 4 year old child.

Of course, Scott released a director's cut that eliminated the narration by Ford, which he had never wanted in the first place but the studios insisted upon. I imagine that would be a definite improvement.


  1. I would really recommend checking out the Final Cut of BR, for me it really is one of the "bread and butter" sci fi films. Also the book really is great as well (if not unbelievably different).


  2. Sam - I read your review and wanted to comment here. The more I hear about this film, the more I am inclined to look further. Like I heard that in the book, Decker turns out to be a replicant himself, and that Harrison Ford wanted to that element in the movie (he's so dang insightful about story telling). As I imagine this, I think such a twist might put the whole story in a different light. Removing the narration would also be a big plus as I mentioned so one of these days I'll have to take your advice and check out Final Cut.

  3. Thanks for commenting on my blog. I've just become a follower of your site!

    I do agree the film has its faults, Roger Ebert made a point that the replicants are not really different to humans apart from being called replicants.

    Here's my review of Blade Runner, where I discuss its strengths and weaknesses:

  4. Deckard is not an android in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" - although he worries that he might be. Nor was Harrison Ford interested in making Deckard out to be a replicant in the film. Director Ridley Scott toyed with the idea, dropping hints, and the director's cut pushes the film a bit more in this direction.

    As for "Why Blade Runner?" - let me say this. Back in the 1980s, the "evil other" was pretty much what we had to expect from screen villains. They were there to be bad, and they should die. Meanwhile, the hero was perfect by virtue of being the audience identification figure. Hence, it is okay for Indiana Jones to shoot a bad guy armed only with a sword: the evil foreign other deserves to die, just because; any question of honor or fairplay is for wussies.

    "Blade Runner" says, "Wait a minute! Let's look at this a bit closer." Our hero is in the business of killing people - artificial people - because they are less "human" and therefore don't deserve life, liberty, due process, whatever. But killing them de-humanizes Deckard, making him no better than those he hunts. As Batty taunts Deckard at the end "Aren't you supposed to be the 'good' man?"

    As for Ebert's observation, it's true that the replicants are not much different from humans, but that's the point the film is making - that their artificial nature does not make them less than human. In fact, in some ways they are more than human.

    The story is about the growing identification between Deckard and Batty and about Deckard realizing how close they really are, and at the key moment Batty turns out to be the heroic one, turning expectations on their head.

    1. Hello Steve. After checking sources, I guess wherever I read about Harrison Ford's wishes was incorrect. Thanks for the correction, and for your own insights on the film's significance. At some point I also realized that some people identify with Batty's realization that his life would be "wasted" upon death as part of the human experience. He is angry with his own creator who made him to be perfect, "but not to last". I guess I missed that simply because as a Christian I don't really identify with the sentiment. And I suppose the good vs. bad guy theme eluded me because I assumed both Batty and Decker were neither good nor bad from the get go. That's what film noir is all about - blurring those lines. Perhaps bringing those age old themes to sci-fi audiences was what ultimately had the greater impact.