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.

15 Responses »

  1. I think my husband married me because I sent him a book on Blade Runner when I was living abroad (that, and I used to tape American TV shows and ship the VHS tapes to Mexico).

    Unlike some other people who saw the original film, I saw the director’s cut when it came out in movie theatres in the 90s, and loved it. It was awesome and probably one of the very few movies that I saw myself reflected in because it looked like a real city and the future was not all-Caucasian, all-the time.

    The most fun part (and here you have to bear with me back to a time when we didn’t have Internet like today) was piecing and deconstructing the movie layer by layer. For example, the neon symbols used in the film, what Japanese character is that for? What is Edward James Olmos saying (he is speaking a mixture of several languages, not just jargon)? What writer is Rutger Hauer quoting? What famous chess move is Tyrel making?

    And finally, is Deckard the real Blade Runner? Or is it Edward James Olmos and Deckard is just a replicant, a copy made with Olmos skills to track androids now that Olmos seems to have an injury (the limp and cane)?

    Most of these questions have been solved nowadays and you can check Wikipedia for it, but back then, you couldn’t just Google. It required numerous, intricate discussions as you had dinners, took the subway together or went to the mini-mart at 3 a.m. It was, in short, quite the experience.

  2. Silvia,

    You’ve definitely inspired me to re-watch the film! I did not read anything about the movie before watching, but after reading your remarks, I think I have a project. Your comments about Olmos/Deckard in particular make a lot of sense and I’m eager to re-watch with a better understanding to “get” more out of the film.

    And I completely agree with you about the non-Caucasian future. I really loved the fusing of noir aesthetics w/Chinatown neon, it worked, and it worked brilliantly.

    Anyways, thanks–I am even more motivated to re-watch Blade Runner now!

    xoxo,

    Molly

  3. Agreed with Molly’s response, Silvia, and thanks for sharing! Just as I love the notion of book as artifact I love movies as artifacts, and the various discussion of films and interpretations that come out of them are almost as much fun as watching the movies themselves. Talking it over with Molly, I think in this case we kind of assumed that due to the particular director certain touches were purely for visual flourish instead of a deeper meaning–unfair to Scott, sure (but given his track record, not unjustified), but even less fair to the screenwriters, as your interpretation lends the film a depth I, frankly, missed entirely. I like your interpretation a lot, and like Molly, look forward to giving it a go–it was always a film I wanted to like more than I did, and I think this might help me with that–cheers!

  4. Oh, and I loved Roy misquoting Blake the way he did–one of those scenes that really stood out.

  5. Having been a Production Designer it is almost impossible to view Blade Runner dispassionately. The film is one of the touchstones of the profession. I have the collectors edition DVD set in the Voight-Kampff case and have watched all five different versions included. I also fairly recently saw the Final Cut projected in 4K digital, but my most abiding memory of Blade Runner is walking out onto early evening city streets after seeing the original cinema release for the first time, and wondering where everyone was and why it felt like a quiet country town. All the criticisms acknowledged, but BR is and always will be one of my favourites.

  6. Agreed big time on the production values–it is hands down one of the prettiest/coolest films I’ve ever seen, and the fact that it was made nearly thirty years ago makes it all the more impressive. Something that more recent CGI fests fail to realize is that it’s not enough to simply render a backdrop world but everything needs to be in harmony, from the costumes and props all the way down to the story and characters, and that’s where Blade Runner sets the standard for perfection. And by the by, which version do you think is best? Definitely looking forward to giving it another go, and this time I’ll be sure not to have a few beers beforehand!

  7. There are certainly gaping problems with the film, and despite being a fan since childhood I can easily empathize with Molly’s feelings of being underwhelmed by it. I have experienced that through the eyes of others over the years when I’ve sat down to watch the movie with people who haven’t seen it. I just read the novel a few years ago and was surprised by how much of the novel was not in the films. Not super-surprised though because much of it probably would not have been filmable in a way that made audiences want to watch it. Still, I don’t think the film entirely captures the ‘what does it mean to be human’ elements of the novel. I do certainly get more out of the movie now, having read the novel, and like others I consider it a cult favorite, flaws and all.

  8. Blade Runner is a film which gets better on repeated viewings. There are layers of subtlety in this film which may not be apparent at first blush. For example, did you notice that each character has an associated animal? Rachael, the unicorn. Leon, the tortoise. Pris, the cat. Roy, the wolf. Zhora, the snake. And notice how their personalities reflect the traits of each animal. Also of note is how the replicants exhibit more empathy and emotion than any of the humans in the film. The irony is that the humans are the cold, thinking machines, who give the “empathy test” to convince themselves that they are still superior to their creations. It’s a retelling of Frankenstein and Pinocchio, told through the lens of a classic Greek tragedy, with noir overtones and a backdrop of a retro-future city which turned out to be quite an accurate picture of today’s world. In my opinion, it’s one of the best films ever made.

  9. Thanks for chiming in, guys. Given how much more I liked it this time around, I can see how repeated viewings improves the experience–although, as with the first time around, thinking about the movie after the fact makes it seem like a better film than it seems during the initial viewing. The symbolism, the dichotomy between human and “machine,” all these things work–but I maintain the pacing bogs down occasionally, which is a shame considering how great some of the scenes and the overall aesthetic is. And I love Tarkovsky films, so I’m not exactly the type to diss something just for being slow!

    All that said, Carl’s right about some of what makes the book so good not really being translatable to the screen, and the older I get the more willing I am to approach films as their own thing–plenty of great movies are perfectly awful adaptations of their source material. I’m anticipating enjoying the film even more the next time I watch it.

  10. One of the reasons Blade Runner was initially panned by critics, including Roger Ebert, was its slow pacing.* Harrison Ford was then known for Indiana Jones and Star Wars, and with Star Trek II and E.T recently in theaters, people were expecting the film to be an action-adventure flick. They were surprised when they went in expecting explosions and laser guns and came out having to digest a heavily cerebral film, one that was so visually and contextually dense that it required repeated viewings to understand fully.

    Ridley Scott’s brother died just before the shooting of the film, and so Ridley put his entire being behind the production of the film in an attempt to work through the loss. The result is a film which is so incredibly detailed even the magazines on the rack, barely seen in the background, have covers from 2019. Few films have ever topped this level of detail.

    And the detail doesn’t just belong to the sets. Next time you watch, take a careful look at gestures, glances, phrases, the color of the replicants’ eyes. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

    Here’s one to get you started. Notice how when Bryant is giving Deckard the lowdown on the escaped replicants how he looks suspiciously at Deckard in one telling moment. Note too how Deckard has family photos, just like Leon. And how Rachael asks him if he’s ever taken the Voight-Kampf test himself. I leave it to you to piece together what that means. :)

    * Roger Ebert eventually recanted and cites the film as one of the best science fiction films ever made.

  11. Methinks the Kressel doth insist too much for one with only a casual interest in this film’s message being taken to heart. Tell me, my fellow Homo sapien, would you have time to take a Voight-Kampf yourself? Just a Fantasy Magazine formality, mind you, random selection from the comment pool and all that–no need to come in, we’ll be sending someone by.

  12. Matthew, you’ve made me want to pull my copy out and watch it all over again, immediately! :)

    I can see why the slower pace would turn some viewers off. Personally it is one of the things I like about the film. It gives it a slow building sense of unease that is perfect for the look and mood of the film.

  13. @Jesse: I’ll gladly submit to such a test. Just don’t ask me about my mother.

    @Carl: Ridley Scott reportedly carried around a picture of the painting “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper. When people asked him what the mood of the film was supposed to be, he whipped out the photo and said, “This.”

  14. That image is a perfect thousand word description of the film, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing that.

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