Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Cinema Bestius: Blade Runner

This movie has burned so very, very brightly.

#12 – Blade Runner
(Note from your Pope: Here in the ecclesiastic city-state that is my suburban home, my movie infallibility is rarely questioned – except in the case of this week’s film. I’m going to wolf down a “Pope-sized” buttered popcorn while Jan, who is currently writing a BOOK on this movie [It’s only a book of poems, but she claims “it still counts.”] pens this week’s Bestius. I weighed in on Blade Runner about five years ago. You can find that column here.

“What’s your favorite movie?” is a dumb question. It’s an impossible oversimplification… “favorite” in what way? Do you mean the movie I’ll drop anything to watch when it pops up on cable, or the one that meant the most to me growing up, or the one I turn to when life is crushing me, or the movie that made me love movies? Is it Scary Movie Month? My answer might totally change during SMM. Also, could you ask me again tomorrow? Because I’m going to the movies tonight, and I’ve heard this one is AMAZING. Look—there are so many terrific movies out there that you can’t expect a person to choose just one. That’s ridiculous and reductive and kind of an insult to movies and the moviemakers who make them and the movie lovers who love them.

My favorite movie is Blade Runner.
The Plot In Brief: Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is an ex-cop pulled back onto the force for a special assignment: track and kill a gang of rogue “replicants” (human-like androids used off-world as slave labor) who have returned to Earth for unknown reasons. Along the way he meets Rachael (Sean Young), who works for the Tyrell Corporation, the company that manufacturers the replicants. As Deckard is drawn deeper into the case—and toward Rachael—he must confront the true meaning of Tyrell’s corporate motto, “more human than human.”

Roger Ebert famously wrote “it's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it.” Few movies manage to illustrate this as well as Blade Runner. Its action is fairly simple; yet in every aspect (genre, theme, characterization, design) its execution is astoundingly complex. Exploring Blade Runner is like exploring an archeological dig; layer after layer calls back to previous discoveries, unearths new artifacts, and sparks new questions.

We’ve all experienced movies that have “no ‘there’ there”—the movie that’s enjoyable while we’re watching it, but dissolves into nothing in our minds during the car ride home from the multiplex. Blade Runner doesn’t dissolve, it expands. That expansiveness is the key to its place as one of the genre’s most influential films—in spite its lackluster reception on initial release. Blade Runner was one of the first films to take advantage of the new distribution opportunities offered by cable and home video; though it only made back about half of its $28 million budget at the box office, it was quite successful as a rental, and for many years was the Criterion Collection’s top-selling laser disc. It’s a movie that endlessly rewards repeat viewings, released when that was finally becoming possible.
That expansiveness is a big reason for my affection for this movie. I’ve talked about my Blade Runner love on this site here and here; I’ve also talked about my Blade Runner love at parties, school, the grocery store, poetry readings, and the doctor’s office because seriously, have you SEEN Blade Runner? (If the answer is “no,” see Blade Runner.) There’s just SO MUCH “there” there.

You want to talk subtext? Let’s spend the next 10,000 words discussing what Blade Runner has to say about what it means to be human. Or we could break that into sub-subtext: what it means to be human in an environment that commoditizes us, or what it means to be an organic being in a non-organic landscape, or what it means to be an outcast from a society that has labeled us as “other,” or how we make (or whether we can make) moral choices, or the ways in which memory defines us. Blade Runner speaks to all of these and more.

What about genre—shall we explore Blade Runner as sci-fi, or as film noir, or as neo-noir, or as a love story? Or instead, let’s concentrate on a few recurring motifs: the eye, vision, and seeing; the fallen angel, the prodigal son, the femme fatale; photographs, both as talisman and avatar; smoke, steam, and veils of all kinds; the triad of creator-creation-creative urge; artificial animals, the color red, pyramids. All of these motifs deserve attention when unpacking what Blade Runner “means.”

As a work of visual art, Blade Runner may be one of the most significant, influential, and boldly realized films ever produced. Syd Mead (as Blade Runner’s “visual futurist”), with production designer Lawrence G. Paull and art director David Snyer, virtually created the neo-noir, cyberpunk aesthetic. The interior spaces, the street scenes, and the sweeping skyscapes create a future that looks real and arrived at, not set-design-y.

Another 10,000 words could be devoted to the movie’s other standout features: the haunting, evocative score by Vangelis; Ridley Scott’s obsessively precise direction, which guides the viewer’s attention through frames packed with significant images; a terrific script (honed through countless revisions) based on a novel by seminal sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick; and the inspired casting and terrific performances (Ford is never better, in my opinion; and Rutger Hauer is amazing in a role that requires him to be part genius cyborg, part murderous warrior, and part frightened, abandoned toddler.)
Yet what I love most about Blade Runner is that, in spite of its incredible richness, it leaves so much unanswered and unexplained. In the end, that may be the key to its lived-in quality, the secret to its satisfying unpackability: it resists the urge to pick a single “truth” to tell. That’s how it chooses to be “about” what it’s about: by making its questions more about the asking than the answers.

A NOTE ON VERSIONS: We don’t have space here to discuss the seven “official” versions of Blade Runner (Wikipedia does that) or the numerous “fan cuts” (Google “Blade Runner white dragon” if you want to fall down that rabbit hole.) I fell in love with the original theatrical release; my favorite version is the 2007 Final Cut. Director Ridley Scott says that’s his favorite version too, which should be reason enough to love it; it also has what I believe is the far superior ending. (I don’t consider the Final Cut ending bleak; it’s certainly much more nuanced, and leaves some important questions importantly unanswered, which adds resonance to the rest of the movie’s themes and subtexts.) On Blu-ray, the Final Cut is stunning.

Look—I get that not everyone digs Blade Runner. It can seem slow for viewers who prefer straight-up action. This is a movie that takes its time and wants you to see and hear and feel every bit of kipple in the corner, every keening cry of the score. Yet for those who have seen it once and it didn’t “take,” I have a suggestion: if your previous viewing was not the Final Cut, check out the Final Cut. If you still don’t like it, I release you. There will always be a gulf between our hearts, but we can still be friends.

A NOTE ON THE SEQUEL: YES, I am excited to see a neo-noir sci-fi movie starring my boyfriend Harrison Ford and his sidekick Ryan Gosling, directed by the guy (Denis Villeneuve) who just did Arrival. NO, I am not excited that they made a sequel to Blade Runner. I wish it did not exist. My strategy is to just box off the original in my mind, and pretend the new movie is really about a future cop named Rint Dellers, a retired Blame Rugger who used to hunt duplidroids in Space City. Maybe it will be good.
Blade Runner’s Three Miracles: Art direction/production design that creates a future so layered, so boldly realized, and so authentically inhabited that it has influenced science fiction movies since its release; performances (or is this direction?) that demonstrate astounding depth of character through every glance and gesture; and a collection of themes and subtexts that inform each other and challenge the viewer in new ways with each screening.

In nomine Scott, et Philip K. Dick, y spiritu Deckard, Amen.


  1. This is one of the few movies that I really didn't like right after it finished, only to find myself a week later come to the realization that I love it. My initial reaction may have been simple intimidation, which is certainly understandable. I highly agree to check out the Final Cut for anyone who hasn't done so already.

  2. Just a beautiful movie, although I still blanche at the "love" scene between Deckard and Rachel, which seems too much like date rape. The outtakes for this sequence show that there were attempts to make it more seductive; why did they have to go this route?

  3. Replies
    1. But also, how did you feel about a new Mad Max before you got that? :)

    2. And now I just realized this was actually a work of Jan's, so I can't really be sure what her thoughts were on Fury Road, haha.

    3. I loved Fury Road! But I think George Miller was a HUGE part of that movie's achievement -- a soul-driver who brought his vision to the project. Also, Fury Road is just a great stand-alone work; it doesn't feel like the filmmakers are artificially extending (or giving background for, in the case of prequels) a character or story "arc" just to make bank. I wish these were the criteria for all sequel/prequel projects. In the case of BR, one of my favorite aspects of the movie is that it OWNS its unanswered questions -- these are not loose ends, they're artistic choices-- and the very idea of a sequel suggests at least a few "answers." Why can't we revisit that world, or that aesthetic, or even return to explore Scott's original vision and subtexts, without "branding" the new work a sequel? I meant it when I wrote about BR2049 "Maybe it will be good"! I hope it's as great as Fury Road. But if it's not, it won't "ruin" the existing BR for me -- I can separate the two works in my mind. #BlameRugger #LikeTeasInSpain

    4. Fair enough. I think you're right that George Miller did a ton to make that movie the success it was. I suppose I am similarly optimistic with BR2049 knowing that one of the writers of the original is involved. And I love me some Denis Villeneuve and Ryan Gosling. How can this combination possibly go wrong?!

      I do agree with what you're saying regarding unanswered questions. Much of the time, (particularly in horror sequels or reboots), that stuff was left that way for a reason and it's not necessarily in anyone's best interest to actually give or get answers.

      Oh well, here's hoping for greatness!

  4. Great column! Are you not still worried about people realizing that Jan has all of the great ideas JB?

    Blade Runner is one of my favourite movies as well, but I couldn't stand it on my first viewing (I don't know why). I understand slow pacing as a criticism of the film, but I simply can't feel that way, considering i'm in awe of every shot that Scott produces. I've also heard it being described as Art Design porn or some shit like that. Despite the simple plot, the characterization and writing is too strong to warrant that response. I hope that the sequel (if mediocre) serves to increase the notoriety of the first film in terms of newer mainstream audiences.

  5. This is fantastic. It's probably my favorite as well. I love the Pope, but after reading this column, I may be in favor of a schism.

    1. Haha! Thanks for the kind words, Bob. But no schism necessary -- FTM is all about movie love unity! (Breaks into rousing chorus of We are The World.)

  6. Long live Mrs Pope! (Is that what we call you?) I especially liked the opening paragraph to preface the line “My favorite movie is Blade Runner” – it gave me a hearty chuckle. Blade Runner is a movie that I'm liking the more times I see it. I still find it fairly enigmatic and I don’t think I’m fully there in embracing it, but it is always a totally engrossing watch. It is also a movie that I have to rewatch every time I think about it. Hold on, I’ll be back… Final Cut you say… well then…

    1. I prefer MS. Pope, actually! Glad I'm seeing some folks here confirming that the movie rewards repeat viewing. Let us know what you think about the Final Cut!