Every Thursday, the Techland Screening Room digs deep in an attempt to appreciate one of the 50 most important sci-fi titles of cinema’s first century. When we’re not analyzing the films, we’re announcing the next title in the series. We welcome your thoughts, insights, grumblings and epiphanies. See previous Techland Screening Rooms here.
Back in 1982, some realized instantly that Blade Runner was a sci-fi game-changer. For others, it took some time and distance to fully appreciate its charms. And also a handful of different cuts, all emphasizing a varying balance of violence, nudity, atmosphere and artificial intelligence.
My definitive Blade Runner experience came in 2007, at the New York Film Festival, with my first viewing of the newly unveiled “Final Cut.” Projected digitally, reconstructed just as Scott had intended, I was absolutely enveloped by this vision of the future. And what startled me most was the rhythm of the thing, Made only 3 years after Scott made Alien, it’s clear that he was blazing a trail in terms of sci-fi stories that didn’t just look and sound unlike anything that had come before, but that adopted a cinematic rhythm which all but defied conventional thinking. (More at Techland: The Toy Story 3 New Toys Gallery)
Don’t you agree?
Blade Runner goes out of its way to refuse to spell anything out for the viewer. We float above this enigmatic cityscape, we witness our villain hatching his plot to assassinate his father without ever realizing that’s what he’s doing, our Blade Runner fights for his life in that huge, abandoned warehouse, always trapped in the shadows. This is a movie with a texture and tempo all its own. And it’s a gritty, tantalizing facade that is haunting and hypnotic. I can still see that futuristic pyramid, with flames shooting up all around. How about Deckard’s apartment, with the advertisement blimps floating by? Or the sounds echoing throughout that abandoned warehouse?
The sensory experience here is dense and mesmerizing, and the images lodge themselves in the memory forever. These are my 7 favorite elements of this classic – what are yours?
1. The cityscape – Few sci-fi masterpieces can match the distinctive, instantly recognizable cityscape that we see here – often seen from afar and emphasizing only the macro details. Whereas other futuristic films have focused on the high-rises, or the flying cars, or the mixed-species population, Blade Runner presents instead a sprawling, startlingly bleak image of where we’re heading. Smokestacks belch fire – think Gary, Indiana – as a modern-day pyramid looms in the distance where artificial life is born, and bestowed on humanity. Blimps flashing ads litter the sky, shining spotlights in every window. It seems to be one dazzling, gentrified mess, where every scene involving real humans plays out on the fringes, in abandoned and neglected buildings or in a futuristic variation of Chinatown.
2. The replicant identity test – Whether we’re talking that early scene, in which the replicant offs his interrogator, or Harrison Ford’s later interview of Rachael, these bizarre interview scenes suggest something sickly and subversive: That replicants don’t know they’re replicants. Right up until the moment of detection, they believe they are actually people. And there’s something insidious about that – sort of like the child that’s programmed to crave a mother’s love in A.I. We aren’t just creating a human from scratch but saddling them with a fake set of memories and emotions. An artificial human, with an artificial past and personality…It’s a compelling twist to your standard robot debate.
3. That lonely Blade Runner musical theme – Sitting alone in his apartment, chugging scotch – or whatever it is – it’s the music that follows Deckard wherever he wanders that strikes me as one of the film’s most unique attributes. Composed by Vangelis, as a fusion of classical compositions and futuristic synthesizers, the chords here echo the themes of classic film noirs, but push the sound into darker, more atonal territory. Almost like a familiar techno sound with swelling, ominous undertones…Just as the movie’s plot takes the elements of a conventional film noir and then scrambles up the deeper meanings in placing them in this futuristic setting, Blade Runner’s music is faintly familiar but utterly unique. (More at Techland: Mythbusters – An Appreciation)
4. Harrison Ford, noir hero – If ever there was a classic noir antihero, it’s Rick Deckard. He’s a loner, skeptical of women, willing to play dirty, more comfortable in the shadows. And just as every noir hero is fearful of caving into his darker impulses, there’s always a suggestion in Blade Runner that Deckard may in fact be a replicant. That the hunter may in fact be just the same as those he’s hunting and destroying. When he finally throws Rachael against a wall and plants a wet one on her robotic lips, he follows in the footsteps of so many Humphrey Bogart creations, giving in to his darker desires – consequences be damned.
5. Destroying the creator – The candlelit scene of Roy destroying his creator is a sci-fi scene for the ages. “I want more life father,” Roy says, as he tries to talk his own personal Messiah into extending his existence. He then grabs his father’s skull and pushes on the eye sockets until his creator dies. It’s a violent, liberating moment, and ironically, I don’t think there’s a moment in the film where Roy’s humanity seems more genuine than in this exacting of revenge against his maker. He begs for more life, then destroys the hand that made him. And I think the audience is hard-pressed to figure out how they feel about this morally convoluted turn of events. Kind of justified, maybe?
6. Deckard’s fight for his life – The standoff between Roy and Deckard is truly one of a kind. With Roy cackling and taunting as he runs around this warehouse – his noises bouncing off the arching walls – Deckard quickly realizes he’s in over his head and tries to scramble for the rooftop. But it’s clear that not only is Roy stronger than his human adversary, he’s also smarter than Deckard. And it all builds up to the moment that Deckard is dangling from the rooftop and Roy saves his life. It’s a powerful moment of mercy from a character we think to be one hundred percent merciless, and as the rain falls down in torrents, we see Roy shut down and die, having just performed a final, unexpected, redeeming act.
7. The unicorn – From where I sit, the most important decision of the final cut involves the shot of the unicorn. A fleeting, almost imperceptible insight into Deckard’s dreams, it is Scott’s oh-so-subtle way of linking our hero’s psyche to that origami figure in the film’s final moments. If humans have pre-programmed the dreams of replicants, then what this suggests is that Gaff already knows Deckard’s dreams, and he knows Deckard’s a replicant. But he has decided to spare Deckard, to let him run off with his love. And it’s just that one shot of a unicorn that spins everything on its head – that casts Deckard’s relationship with Rachael, his salvation by Roy, in an entirely new light.
I love Blade Runner, and I think the decisions made towards molding the Final Cut perfectly crystallize all the various ambiguities and paradoxes – all the reasons this is an enduring, enigmatic sci-fi masterpiece.
What do you think? Classic or overrated? What were Scott’s smartest decisions?
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