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I had a strange thought some time ago. When movies like these come out, they aren’t the events that fans and filmmakers look back on and imagine. They’re movies with little concept of how much they’ll impact the world for the next thirty years and beyond. There is no futuristic city more quintessential than L.A. 2019, which isn’t far from now — but hopefully never comes to pass as it does in Ridley Scott’s apocalyptic cyber-fable.

The idea is so clean it’s almost painful. The story defines to me the beauty in science-fiction film, that of tight ideas which lead down fascinating roads of thought while maintaining and executing on a high concept premise. It isn’t just: “Bounty hunter tracks down and kills humanoid androids — STOP,” making it something like the more recent Surrogates, it’s “Bounty hunter tracks down and kills humanoid androids, an act that impacts the audience and characters on a moral and philosophical level, as these androids are distinguishable to humans only by a bizarre method of interrogation known as Voight-Kampff…”

In a recent interview with Cinemax to look back on Blade Runner during its 30th anniversary year, Ridley Scott revealed that Blade Runner was definitely his most personal film, though he followed that up with a moment of silence and thought and something like, “yeah, that’s it.” I suppose it makes since, not because Scott isn’t known for making films with very personal subjects (in that, he does everything from the Crusades and Columbus to espionage and modern warfare), but because Blade Runner is an emotional film that says quite a lot about humanity and violence — lofty themes atypical of science-fiction in film.

Because this is a sci-fi film, the emotion and that which says quite a lot are delivered in what we could call a non-traditional manner, considering the genres that do deal in these things more often than SF. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, or even character interaction, but there’s an unrelenting brooding about the atmosphere that looks pretty — though thirty years later it does show the construction behind its making — but hits you as a dead end for our kind, a shimmering monument to ourselves that’s choking out life and morality. Above all, it fills us with dread and loneliness, despite, or perhaps because of, the faceless crowds flowing in every direction, and being pelted with endless rain. It’s a perfectly impressionistic environment to house one man’s depressing, dehumanizing journey.

That’s exactly what Blade Runner is, this journey that chips away at Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), making it less of a dramatic tearjerker and more cerebral fare with a genuinely poigniant core. Characters struggle against forces beyond their control, whether it’s death or society (“If you’re not police you’re regular people”), and lose, even though the hero does achieve the dramatic need he establishes at the beginning of the movie.

LEGACY

Blade Runner also works because it’s one of the classic genre-mixers. It combines science-fiction with noir, a formula that’s sustained SF for years and years. In the context of this film, it’s a good blend, as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking hard-boiled is entirely justified in a bleak world where suddenly you can’t be sure of your own identity, and where the sky taunts you to join the “Off-World Colonies,” which I can’t imagine are any better than the ‘Hellscape’ of Los Angeles.

Anime in particular took to this new trope, referencing and embodying the movie in so many titles — but to no better effect than in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which does more than pay lip service to the visuals. In this 2004 sequel to Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking Ghost in the Shell, two police detectives scour the dark underworld of a futuristic Tokyo, maneuvering through yakuza strapped with illegal model cyborgs and the haunting, Gothic locales where minds can be easily lost to remote psychological warfare of the most invasive variety. Questions of humanity and the blur between flesh and metal — what Masamune Shirow refers to as the Man/Machine Interface — rise to the same effect, though in much clunkier, verbose terms.

Elements of Blade Runner have also found homes in America, in the oddest of places — anything from Mass Effect to Batman Begins. Science-fiction is great at capturing the imagination of fans and creators, and Blade Runner stands up there with Star Wars and Star Trek and frankly, has spawned better derivatives, which seem to be more venerating toward the source.

THE UNICORN

Maybe the greatest problem with the whole “Is Deckard a Replicant” thing is that he dreamt of a unicorn, and not an Electric Sheep. That would’ve solved it, put it down for good. Of course, there’s a bigger problem, that of harping on whether or not he’s a replicant, and proliferating the idea that it actually matters. What is gained from Deckard being a replicant? An idea, but only one that’s supplemental — the Philip K. Dick “aha!” at the end that gives us a notion about the world and the themes of the movie, a mechanic that Christopher Nolan most recently recycled in the ending of Inception. We are not meant to argue one way or the other, because that would be giving validity to something best experienced in its fleeting, epilogue form.

This is an issue of fandom, more specifically that of the science-fiction variety. This is odd because there are plenty of Philip K. Dick books out there with these kinds of endings — I think to Ubik immediately — but because there is no Ubik movie, there is no discussion, and Ubik is left alone as a thought-provoking, satisfying whole. It’s also an issue of medium, then. I think that we as audiences tend to value the literal over the figurative when it comes to movies, which unless established, portray things meant to be taken at face value. We’re seeing and hearing these ‘tangible’ things — they’re solid, concrete. When Deckard picks up that origami — it’s not the idea blending over the physical image and clouding our mind like it should.

This story format bias is interesting, but has only really haunted Blade Runner and a handful of others, as Blade Runner was brave but didn’t make its money back. It’s more of a cult success in line with The Thing and Streets of Fire, to name two movies from around that time, which often gives these movies its staying power. In the case of Blade Runner, it must just be that immortal question, that which is so backwards. In my mind, he’s a replicant insofar as he’s been dehumanized over the arc, but to say that creates a clash of how Scott sees the Android, and how Dick sees it.

In preparation for writing Nazi characters for his Hugo-award winning The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick did extensive and disturbing research, becoming fascinated by how robotic and callous people can be. He drew on that in his creation of the ‘andys’ in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, creating what were essentially empathetically-challenged humans, which Scott takes one step further. The replicants in Blade Runner are sympathetic, some more than others, but in the end, Roy is entirely human. But he’s a replicant. In the end, Deckard is a figurative replicant, but wouldn’t that mean that… he’s human? And besides, he’s also supposedly a replicant for real…?

I suppose it’s more to do with the blurring of the two. It’s not so much where one begins and ends, but that we as people are becoming colder, or have been cold and this city is a mirror, and this is how we can shoot a human woman in the back, in front of the endless crowds.

BLADE RUNNER, 2019

The future of Blade Runner is a recent development with the announcement of a sequel, which is definitely one of those sequels that’s always been ‘possible,’ but never really plausible. On one hand, it’s a shame, as Blade Runner has always felt more in line with great science-fiction literature, and should stand alone as a great story with a beginning, middle, and end, but on the other, this is great news.

Thinking on it, the things that made Blade Runner a true classic could be done again. It’s just… science-fiction in film isn’t a thinking man’s genre, and the current state of SF is best summed up in the Syfy Channel*: “We just don’t give a fuck.” Granted, there are surprises every now and then, and hopefully Blade Runner 2 will surprise us all. If it doesn’t, that’s fine. This is how I view things, after The Thing remake: I love John Carpenter’s The Thing as a fan of film. It’s a great movie with memorable characters and moments that shock and reinforce the bleakness. I love the new The Thing as a fan of general science-fiction because I love the story’s setup, and the things it can do. The Antarctic setting, the monster itself, the infighting — it’s not the best it’s been, but it’s more.

The world of Blade Runner has also had time to develop. Cyberpunk was born in 1982 and died ten years or so later. It saw a lot of classics, like Akira, the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell and its TV series Stand Alone Complex, Strange Days, Deus Ex, and even to some extent the Terminator franchise, though that’s been missing an entirely new world to populate. That’s what Blade Runner 2 can offer right now, when we know so little about it. A world — and if it’s anywhere near the original’s, it’ll be a good day for science-fiction fans.

But we’ll bitch anyway.

 

*Rant incoming

(Not that any future plans on this site should be trusted. I’d like to do that but once I said I’d do a retrospective on Mamoru Oshii and then I said I’d do a Ghost in the Shell retrospective and then a Wire recap… Someday)

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The troubled production of Blade Runner and the various Cuts of the movie put out over the years by different parties gives credence to the idea that very few of its makers fully grasped exactly what the movie was about. Some argued that Deckard wasn’t a replicant, some preferred ambiguity. In one cut we see that Tyrell wasn’t killed, his replicant was, and he’s up on the top floor of the pyramid frozen like Walt Disney. How could this be? And how in the world does it turn out to be such a focused piece of literary science-fiction film? Perhaps there aren’t answers to such questions; the best we can do is look back on the masterful filmmaking and science-fiction storytelling that was at play back in ’82. This is a dark, intense, cerebral, and moving film, the very most important science-fiction movie ever made.

This is of course, only in my opinion, as most people believe movies like Metropolis, 2001, Star Wars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, maybe Solaris, or possibly Planet of the Apes to be the best SF movies of all time. Blade Runner usually comes in second or third – a good movie, but the best? I have this sometimes unique opinion because Ridley Scott’s finest hour fills out every requisite in my personal checklist of the standard of film.

Awhile ago I was going to publish a post akin to my ludicrous “To Ride a High Horse” post that was all about the “Standard of Film,” though it was more about how movies like Citizen Kane and Crank 2 are both great movies, but can’t be judged on the same plane. One has the aspirations to be a dramatic metaphor for America, and the other wants to be an adrenaline-pumped action masterpiece to rival HK cinema – they both succeed, but they’re different aspirations that appeal to different people: one happens to appeal to AFI. Anyhow, it’s not the time nor place for that – this new standard of film is something I concocted awhile ago and couldn’t find a new name for:

If a movie is going to succeed fully in my eyes it must be treated like a sudoku puzzle. Every element has to fit into place here, here, and here, lest it upset the balance and not work – if we do upset the balance with some superfluous element, some other filmmaker could take the movie and exchange the element for a better one. So every fabric of the movie should serve a higher purpose, and equally significant, the manner in which it’s stitched should be important and irreplaceable. Everything that happens in the movie must tie back to the thematic structure, and this is the foundation that the filmmakers will build off of with their own unique and personal ideas.

There are of course exceptions to this, like The Shawshank Redemption, those thematic framework isn’t necessarily the strongest, but it’s here to tell a damn good story, and it does, making it a truly great movie. Blade Runner on the other hand succeeds by being thematically dense – the paranoia, the questions of humanity and reality and morals, the film noir stylings, they’re everywhere in the images presented, in the dialogue, and embedded in deeper, subtler places.

What makes Blade Runner special is that the themes it addresses so meticulously are all fascinating and sometimes enlightening to me personally, and hopefully you too. Very phildickian, as one might imagine, despite it’s narrative departure from the beautifully titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s a movie that steps back from humanity by pushing us forward thirty-seven years into a smog-choked future to examine and ask question like only sci-fi can. By using death as a motive for the villains, it creates dual arcs that dovetail into a powerful climactic scene between very changed characters, and in this journey’s end we as the audience are privy to the measure of dehumanization. We’re also allowed time to reflect on all the ideas brought up over the course of the story.

I’ll try to get into it more in depth later, but the idea that death motivates our villain is so brilliant on so many levels. Not only does it make Roy Batty sympathetic and not a one-note mustache-twirling “Give me one-billion dollars lest I blow up the world” fool, it demonstrates that the acceptance that all things fade in time like tears in rain makes us human, and Rick Deckard watches on, now a replicant in spirit but not in flesh…

What seems to be the problem?
Death.

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

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

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