I should probably qualify this post; it isn’t meant to be an attack on Roger Ebert. Though he and I don’t always see eye to eye (Hereafter), his criticisms of scifi is generally unbiased and he was an Asimov kind of guy as a kid so I can respect that. However, his initial review of Blade Runner was exactly why movies like Blade Runner are being tampered with by the noncreative partners of production teams: the death of art.

The documentary on the making of Blade Runner, Dangerous Days, displayed two things, and I mentally connected them. There was a chapter dedicated to the post production and test screenings and all that. Someone famously decided that Harrison Ford should record a noir voiceover to clear up some of the ‘confusing’ elements. This was not the original intent of Ridley Scott, whose best film was being changed, though he eventually agreed to them. At the end of the behind-the-scenes doc, in discussion of the polarizing effect the film had on audiences, a big old block of white text faded onto black: an excerpt from Ebert’s review:

“He seems more concerned with creating his film worlds than populating them with plausible characters, and that’s the trouble this time. Blade Runner is a stunningly interestingly visual achievement, but a failure as a story.”

This is the classic failure of critics in evaluating movies like Blade Runner and Once Upon a Time in the West. These movies forgo conventional characterization and storytelling in order to convey certain ideas. Calling the characters flat is ultimately defeating: it is not their purpose to be round, dynamic characters. Deckard’s arc is compelling, but dangerously unique. He descends toward inhumanity, but never takes the time to break down and cry or have a tense argument with other characters. Even Clive Owen in Children of Men did one of those, and that’s another movie that’s seemingly cold.

That of course is beside the fact that Roy Batty is one of the most intellectually and emotionally stimulating characters in science fiction (um, that is not to damn him with the faintest of praise). I assume he would later come to realize that as he did with Once Upon a Time in the West, but critics in that line of work need to critisize when they cannot praise, and I’m using the traditional definition of critisize, not ‘analyze.’ If a movie has one apparent problem, you’ll jump on it instead of viewing the work as a whole.

The problem is that the ‘weakness’ often cited in Blade Runner is intentional, but critics are fooled into thinking it was an artistic mistake.

“Seeing the movie again, even in this revised version, I still felt the human story did not measure up to the special effects.” (Ebert on the Director’s Cut)

Even if the human story was absent as Ebert had thought the first and second time reviewing the film, why does it have to exist to make the movie complete? Perhaps if it had aspirations of a human story and failed it would matter, but Blade Runner‘s story is so unconventional I don’t think that argument could be made. A formulaic Hollywood blockbuster with a boring conventional love story was 2009’s Star Trek. I didn’t care about the romance between Spock and Zoe Saldana, but that movie was still kickass regardless.

I think that’s where critisicm becomes subjective, and then that throws into question the validity of the medium. You might agree with Ebert when he says that special effects shouldn’t outweigh a human story, or you might agree with me and say that both have places in film. Arguments can be made for both, but I don’t like it when a critic steers somebody away because of their belief. Playing into this theme of special effects vs. humanity is the movie I always go back to – The Thing. Don’t let somebody tell you that the effects minimize the human story, because that might make you overlook it. Whether or not you agree that the effects outdo the script after watching it is inconsequential, the point is to watch it (because it’s awesome).

I hate to say this, but this issue of special effects vs. human story, at least in Blade Runner, sees the younger Roger Ebert ‘not getting it.’ Blade Runner is a philosophical look at humanity, and like its brethren in Solaris or 2001, it’s romantic or otherwise ‘human’ elements seem weak. Like I said earlier, this is intentional. But if critics don’t ‘get it,’ then movies after Blade Runner might not try to be so unconventional. Maybe Blade Runner gets slammed by critics and makes ostensibly zero dollars and zero cents, and maybe each subsequent cut of the movie is tampered with because somebody somewhere thinks everybody everywhere won’t understand.

This is when movies aren’t just passive entertainment – you have to be on the lookout for the stuff that makes Blade Runner good outside the production design. And maybe that’s an imperfection, that the philosophy is too cryptic. It was to me the first time I saw it, and certainly if I hadn’t researched Once Upon a Time in the West before watching it, I wouldn’t have understood that its post-modernism paralleled and enhanced the commentary on the passing of an era.

“The “human story,” as I think of it, involves practical tests to determine if an individual is a replicant or not, and impractical tests (such as love) to determine how much that matters to (a) people, if they are in love with a replicant, and (b) replicants, if they know they are replicants.” (Ebert on the Final Cut)

The whole Blade Runner Review Trilogy he’s got going shows that Blade Runner is a movie that defies initial impressions. You might watch it and be like, “what?” That’s what I did. I wasn’t necessarily sucked into the visuals, but I was distracted by the pace of the Director’s Cut. I was bored to tears, but that was before I came to appreciate production design and cyberpunk as a visual subgenre. Then I read the book, forgot the book, and watched the movie again after listening to some podcasts that told me to think a little bit. So I did.

I guess that’s why I’m gonna write this blog/novel about the movie – it really is the greatest science-fiction movie ever made, but it’s a complicated affair. What version do I watch? Why was it so boring? How is it linked to the book? What’s Soldier all about? …Heh, you weren’t thinking that last one…

In the end though, Ebert is a guy I respect. He’s one who likes good movies. I’m just the guy who takes them way too seriously.

For more on Blade Runner, check out The Blade Runner Directory