From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Films of High Adventure: Blade Runner

For a few months now, we (meaning Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer) have been re-watching old fantasy and adventure films that influenced one or both of our respective childhoods and blogging about whether or not, for us, they withstand The Test of Time. So far we’ve done, among others, The Company of Wolves, Legend, and The NeverEnding Story. This month we finish up our month of Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia (after reviewing RoboCop, Total Recall, and Dark City on our blogs) with Ford, Hauer, and Olmos. . .

Film: Blade Runner (1982)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Direction by repeat style-over-substance offender Ridley Scott (Legend, Gladiator, Alien). Screenplay by Hampton Fancher (The Mighty Quinn) and David Webb Peoples (Twelve Monkeys, Ladyhawke), from a novel by the oft-cinematically abused Philip K. Dick. Soundtrack by Vangelis, perhaps best known around these parts for banging his space harp for Carl Sagan’s Cosmos miniseries. Co-produced, somewhat inexplicably, by Sir Run Run Shaw. Starring an array of oddly-cast actors: Harrison Ford as the noir Hero, Sean Young as the noir Dame, Rutger Hauer as the Heavy, Darrell Hannah as the Femme Fatale, M. Emmet Walsh as the Police Chief, Brion James as the Muscle, Edward James Olmos as the Baffling (and perhaps. . . bafflingly Chinese? Maybe?) Cop, William Sanderson (E.B. Farnum from Deadwood) as the Man-Baby, and James Hong (Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China) as the Weirdo Eyeball Scientist.

Quote: “‘More human than human’ is our motto.”

Alternate quote (hollered by an exceptionally weird Eddy James Olmos): “Too bad she won’t live. . . but then again, who does?”

First viewing by Molly: Last week.

First viewing by Jesse: Early middle school, immediately after reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

Most recent viewing by both: Last week.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: I was vaguely aware it existed.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Decent but, in retrospect, surprisingly not really all that strong. I recall being very disappointed by all the changes the story underwent but pleased that Dr. Jones was the star and Daryl Hannah was in a leotard.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to watching: Eager! I was excited to finally be sitting down to watch Blade Runner. I’d heard all sorts of good stuff about it, and I like Harrison Ford, and I really, really like movies from the 80s that look like the future as imagined by people in the 40s. Also, during the panel I was on at WFC I heard that, allegedly, Roy was “Rutger Hauer’s only good role” (amusingly, a voice from the audience chirped “Other! Other good role!” “What was the first?” I asked. “Ladyhawke,” she said, blushing. I studiously avoided catching Jesse’s eye), so, yeah. Stoked!

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: A little more excited than I was about last week’s FoHA PKD adaptation re-watch, mostly because I hadn’t seen it in so long. I was very curious to see what Molly would think of it, as she seems to have a general aversion to noir films while very much appreciating the noir aesthetic [Molly says: "aversion to noir films" is perhaps a problematic way of expressing this. I am actually really drawn to noirs, but always come away feeling like I missed something. I genuinely feel my ??? of the genre is a serious aesthetic failure on my part, but hey, there's no accounting for taste---even one's own, sometimes]. I also assumed my youthful pissiness over how different the movie was from the book would be tamed, now that enough years had passed that I’d mostly forgotten both the source text and the film adaptation and could thus appreciate the movie more for what it is than what it could or should have been. Plus, ya know, Rutger Hauer generally provokes amusing reactions from Molly, so there was the sadism element, too.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Well, I dunno. I definitely think my high expectations were partially to blame for feeling a mite underwhelmed, but I also think my general ??? when it comes to noir as a genre didn’t help Blade Runner any, either, because unlike other neo-noirs (is  that even the right term?) I felt like Blade Runner hewed closer to the nature of old noirs rather than just pilfering the aesthetics because they are cool, objectively speaking [Jesse says: yep, and I think that's one of the elements that really works for BR as a film, although not, as I recall, as a faithful adaptation]. I suppose what I am saying is that I wanted to be enjoying Blade Runner more than I did for many, many of the minutes it was on.

Watching Blade Runner was in a lot of ways just like watching Legend for me, in that I felt like all the elements were there for a Number One Super Tanz Hit, but yet somehow it all didn’t add up to a movie I liked. I don’t know if my unfamiliarity with the source text was part of what made the film more perplexing than awesome for me, or that I was so caught up in admiring the soundstages that I disconnected from the plot, or if I was just so, so expecting Harrison Ford’s character to be a Replicant that when he wasn’t (Maybe? The internet says that (spoiler) the origami unicorn Gaff leaves is a reference to Deckard’s unicorn dream because he looked up Deckard’s file like he had earlier looked up Rachael’s? Or something?) I became destabilized, or if I was too baffled as to why at the end Rutger Hauer was hooting and running around in his underpants and then suddenly waxing poetic about space and stuff. . . woah.

And yet. As I think back on it, I like Blade Runner more in retrospect than I did while I was watching it, weirdly enough. I felt Ford was miscast as Deckard, but I liked his chemistry with Young’s Rachael. I like the character of Rachael, but I like my memories of her relationship with Deckard more thinking back on them aesthetically than in the moment, when I just felt frustrated that people were staring and acting awkward with one another for no discernible reason. I like Rutger Hauer’s insanity, and I liked Daryl Hannah’s outfits. . . I dunno. I’m rambling, because I feel like if, like Jesse, I had read it as a kid and forgotten it I would have “gotten” the movie more [Jesse says: I certainly liked it more watching it as an adult rather than as a kid, but yeah, fair enough on certain things only making sense due to residual PKD memories, such as the importance of artificial animals].

In the end, I felt Blade Runner was beautiful, insane, and ultimately kind of a let-down. I think I just wanted more—more reason to care about the Replicants and their plight, more reason to like Harrison Ford’s character, more. . . stuff. Oh well. I’ll probably re-watch it and see if a second go-round changes my mind a little. It might. Then again, given my track record with noirs in general. . . hmm.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Absolutely gorgeous, as I remembered, and nowhere near so disappointing without the fresh memories of the novel to impact the viewing experience. I also suspect I saw one of the different cuts of the film (there are maybe a dozen) since this one (the director’s cut) didn’t have the Harrison Ford voice-over narration that was so annoying. That said, it’s still kinda dopey, and almost feels undercooked. I know, I know, heresy in the eyes of the Robot Church, but like so many of our FoHA entries this one feels like it could have benefited from a smarter script and more substance to go with its admittedly breath-taking style.

This is not to say it doesn’t deserve its status as beloved classic—frankly, style is enough when the style is this good. Unlike some critics I actually think the merging of noir detective pulp with rainy cyberpunk dystopia works great, and while the movie too often feels slightly off when it is on it is seriously, beautifully on. The final scene with Roy Batty, for example, is phenomenal:

Although the chase-and-fight-and-chase-and-fight that prefaces it maybe goes on a little long [Molly says: also, why did he take off his clothes? (Jesse says: those pants were just slowing him down)] the raw power of the scene (which Hauer partially ad-libbed) is undeniable, which makes the flat portions of the film seem even flatter. Philip K. Dick apparently criticized the script as being nothing more than “Philip Marlowe meets The Stepford Wives,” which is a rather fair assessment, although he was reportedly pleased with the finished film. Considering how good Blade Runner looks, who wouldn’t be?

High Points: The sets and sound stages. The effects and props. The costumes. The cinematography. The choreography (seeing a pattern yet?). That the director’s cut removes both Harrison Ford’s voice-over narration and the schmaltzy original ending:

Final Verdict: A beautiful, beautiful mess that fails to be the deep mono-myth it strives for but has moments of brilliance sprinkled amongst the longs stretches of under-developed characters wandering a gorgeous dreamscape. In others words, a typical Ridley Scott movie.

Next Time: Check Fantasy at the end of December for our writeup of a consummate film of high adventure. If you know why you shudder in your soul every time you hear the word “snails” you might just guess what’s coming down the pipe. . .

Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the upcoming The Enterprise of Death, and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ChiZine, Brain Harvest, Jabberwocky, and several anthologies, including Running with the Pack and The Best of All Flesh. He lives in Colorado and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.

Molly Tanzer is the Managing Editor of Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed. Her fiction appears in Running with the Pack, and she has work forthcoming in Palimpsest and Historical Lovecraft. The account of her playing minigolf with zombie band The Widow’s Bane can be found at Strange Horizons. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and a very bad cat. You are welcome to visit her any time over at her blog.