Originally shown September 29, 2010
Star Wars did a lot of great things, but one horrible thing that it did was, it very nearly killed the concept of the “smart” science fiction film. It’s a lot easier to make a space opera that fudges on the science, than to make a movie where the science challenges the very nature of our existence. Then, even if you can pull it off and get the movie made, it’s a lot easier to sell fans on a space opera than to persuade them to watch a movie that asks Big Questions. The best proof of this is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: at the time one of the box-office disasters of the 1980s, now seen as one of the greatest films of the decade.
The film opens with credits, then a text crawl which posits a world inhabited by genetically-engineered androids called “replicants” and the “blade runners” who hunt down rogue replicants and kill them. It’s a pretty long block of text to start a movie with, and complicated too; if you don’t get it, you may well be lost for the remainder of the film’s two hours. Not hard to see why the movie was a tough sell and a financial failure.
Then a title card announcing that we are in Los Angeles, 2019, and we are swept away by an incredible vision of what forty years might do to the City of Angels. It’s a dark, sprawling noir nightmare of a city, undermining every classic L.A. trope of film: constant rain, gloomy skies even when dry, nary a beach or palm tree to be found, a place that every inhabitant wants to escape. If you see Blade Runner, please try to do so in Blu-Ray or some other HD format. That opening shot will remove any doubt about this movie’s greatness.
Harrison Ford is Deckard, a blade runner tasked to eliminate a group of rogue replicants led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, in a career-making performance). Replicants live shortened lives as a result of their genetic engineering, but Roy would like to change all of that, and Deckard is tasked with stopping him. Deckard isn’t really a classic film noir hero – he’s more of a bounty hunter or even assassin, two roles that you never saw Humphrey Bogart play. Roy, however, is the classic film noir villain: more powerful than the hero in every way and seemingly willing to kill whomever he needs to in order to reach his goal.
Ford was coming off of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, so he had nothing to prove and the opportunity to take a slightly dangerous role. As I said above, Deckard is really just an assassin when you get right down to it. He lacks sympathetic traits like Han Solo’s code of honor or Indiana Jones’ love of adventure. Ford captures that by taking away any swagger that he might have had in his action-hero roles. In the many scenes where Deckard is up against imminent death, he doesn’t seem daring or creative. He looks terrified, which is as it should be: Roy is an avenging angel, and Deckard is just a man.
There have been a lot of cuts of Blade Runner floating around out there; originally, the studio didn’t really understand what kind of movie they had on their hands and ordered a number of changes, including the addition of a terrible voiceover narration from Ford.* At Movie Klub we watched the original director’s cut, which did not have the narration, goes to some darker places with Sean Young as a replicant who believes herself to be human, and included some scenes which suggest that Deckard might himself be a replicant.
Before I get to the whole “is Deckard human?” issue, which sets some areas of the Internet aflame even today, I’d like to point out that the original cut of the movie, as many problems as it has, is still pretty damned good. It doesn’t mess with the wonderfully creepy scene where Ford and Young meet, and it has the great scene where Ford teaches Young how to lust. It also leaves the climax of the movie intact, which is good, because Hauer’s final monologue may well be the best expression that the movies have ever had of what it means to be alive.
The various cuts of the movie that have come out over the years (the Blade Runner Blu-Ray contains the theatrical cut and four other versions) all tweak the same scenes, those which imply that Deckard is a replicant. Personally, I think that it would be a cool idea if Deckard were a replicant, but if he were, the entire plot of the movie would subsequently make no sense. It’s better to think of the entire question in terms of the overall theme of the movie: humanity is a slight thing, difficult to define and so easily ended. The doubt that exists in Deckard’s mind is no different than Roy’s doubts about how long he has to live, which is the same doubt that exists in every one of us.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Scott was coming off of the immense hit Alien, and Ford was the biggest star in the world at the time, but their combined power was not enough to stop the studio from meddling with the movie. That’s Hollywood.