Blade Runner

Blade Runner ★★★½

Images. More than most films, BLADE RUNNER is a film of images. Real visual images and suggested images invoked by sounds. Few films have ever depended more on imagery or been so innovative in the construction and use of imagery. Few films have ever enlisted such overpowering imagery for such comparatively sparse dramatic purpose. BLADE RUNNER is a tale told by technicians, full of sights and fury, signifying... not much.

BLADE RUNNER is a story set in a dreary future where genetic robots ("replicants") are used as slave labor in space but are outlawed on earth. A kind of cop called a "blade runner" (Harrison Ford) is charged with tracking down several fugitive
replicants. In the process, he falls in love with a new-and-improved model replicant (Sean Young). He tracks down the bad
guys and fights them, while trying to figure out whether he should love a machine. That's the story in a nutshell. It is
delivered in some of the most imaginative sets and effects ever seen at that time, most of which hold up wonderfully thirty years later. It is shot brilliantly (if deliberately and somewhat disconcertingly murkily), and the music does what is most
commonplace for music to do, create mood, whether or not there is any mood to sustain without the music.

No doubt I will lose friendships, start wars, and collapse nations with this opinion, as three quarters of a metric ton of people are heavily emotionally invested in this film being a magnificent, world-changing masterpiece. I concede the world-changing part. Hollywood movies haven't been the same since BLADE RUNNER. It's a magnificently influential film. But that doesn't make it magnificent overall. In my estimation, it's a small vision writ large, a relatively mundane chase-and-fight movie done up in post-modern noirish fantasy and pseudo-meaningful pseudo-profundidities. The climactic "monolog" so many BLADE RUNNER fans can recite in their sleep, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die." -- that's comic book stuff, and hardly Goethe or William Blake (who's misquoted elsewhere in the film in another attempt to be profound by being obscure).

I've now seen BLADE RUNNER four times, sort of. I saw it when it first came out in 1982 and admired the technical genius but felt little or nothing dramatically. I saw it again three times within the past two days, seeing each of the various theatrical release versions individually, back-to-back. In the 30 years since it came out, perhaps I've grown enough to grasp the subtleties and brilliances of the story, I thought. I'll watch it again, and I'll watch all three versions to get every last bit of nuance out of it. But this is a nuance-challenged movie. It *suggests* nuance but doesn't actually contain much. It succeeds wonderfully at giving the impression that it not only is about something deep, but that it seriously investigates those deepnesses. But it's only an impression. Take away the masterful special effects and photography and design, and what one is left with is an extremely simple story about a sort-of cop chasing down three or four rather shallowly-drawn bad guys. There's a lot of guff about the meaning of being human and the value of emotion and memory, but it's like one of those "very special" episodes of THREE'S COMPANY where Chrissy finds a lump and the music swells and
makes everyone teary and then the lump turns out to be a loose button in her bra. The "meaning" is *created* by the music and the effects and the lighting and the pacing, but it's not really, *really* there in the story. Or at least it's there only in passing.

What the film is really about is imagery. The opening shots of a fiery, smoky horrendously overbuilt Los Angeles instantaneously set the tone. The infusion of every shot with smoke (a common trick to give depth and substance to the images) not only feeds the over-exerted nod to film noir, it makes every shot look important--even the unimportant ones. The conceit of having Los Angeles overcast and rained on like India is rained on gives great imagery, and contributes to the notion that all this must mean something. But beyond mood created by imagery and music alone, and a tip of the hat to wary environmentalists in the audience, it doesn't really mean much (though it at least gives a touch of resonance to that monolog stuff about "tears in rain"). Even the title doesn't mean anything. It's a sound image, to coin a term. The phrase "blade runner" isn't part of Philip K. Dick's novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, on which the film is ostensibly based. It's actually a phrase from elsewhere referring to someone who deals in stolen knives. It's used here because it sounds cool, because it creates a mental image of sharpness and speed and, by extension, cool toughness. It doesn't make any sense within the story for replicant hunters to be called "blade runners." Except that REPLICANT HUNTER isn't a great, cool, imagistic movie title.

The film is chock-ablock with cool, off-beat, quirky images, all of which successfully add to the tone without standing up under any kind of energetic examination. There are lots of shots of eyes and eyeballs. Sometimes these relate to the test Ford's character Deckard administers to determine who's robot and who ain't. But many of these shots, particularly the ones involving the replicant Pris, played by Darryl Hannah, are just cool in intent, without dramatic linkage or direct purpose. So we see shots of Hannah, staring, then turning her head swiftly about in a startling move, yet in a setting where no one sees her and where her quirky acts have no impact other than to trigger image response in the viewer: Wow, that looked neat! When Rutger Hauer, as the leader of the replicants, strips down to his shorts in the middle of the climactic fight with Deckard, the only reason that comes to my mind for him to do this is that someone thought the fight would look cooler if he were near-naked and dripping wet. And when a major set-piece takes place in a building full of expensive hand-made toys but which is also so riddled with holes that water pours through the roof, and that huge ornate building is occupied by one solitary person while the streets are crammed with beggars and riffraff, it sends the suggestion that this section is much more about art direction and what a cool building the (real-life) Bradbury building is than about what makes sense in the world the filmmakers have bent heaven and earth to create.

Please be assured that I'm not trashing this movie. BLADE RUNNER is an immensely watchable movie with amazing visuals and a fairly interesting plot, accentuated by music and lighting that create a palpable and inescapable mood that leans somewhere toward that of genuine film noir. But behind all the smoke and mirrors of 2019 Los Angeles is something not too far afield from what Gertrude Stein said about a city further up the coast: "There's no there there."

(NOTE: I'd intended this as a thorough examination of the differences in the three widely-released versions of the film: the original release cut, the so-called (but erroneously so) "Director's Cut," and the director's preference, the "Final Cut." However, outside of the deletion of a terrible faux-Philip Marlowe voice-over narration that is present only in the first version, and the visual clean-up of a few effects shots in the later versions, there's not really all that much of interest to write about insofar as the various versions go. There are lots of changes to little details and the addition of a memory?/dream? sequence involving a unicorn, but nothing that seriously or radically alters the meaning [or lack thereof] of the tale. I'm sure BLADE RUNNER devotees will disagree vociferously, but, hey, that's why they have unicorn races.)

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