#12 – Blade Runner
“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.
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.
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.)
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.
In nomine Scott, et Philip K. Dick, y spiritu Deckard, Amen.