FILM REVIEW: Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner (USA, 1982)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Joe Turkel

There comes a point in the life of any true-blooded film reviewer when they must plant a flag in the sand and argue their case for the greatest film of all time. It's a daunting task, since the films which we most revere often take on an 'untouchable' quality. They resonate so strongly with us and are so perfect in construction, that we almost daren't approach them, lest our feeble words and platitudes fail to convey their majesty.

Blade Runner is everything you could want from a film, and so much more. It straddles genres ably, incorporating elements of science fiction, gothic horror, film noir and action-adventure. It achieves a perfect balance between style and substance, allowing for a bittersweet examination of complicated ideas amidst a vivid landscape of light and colour. It has the scientific head and cold surroundings of a perfect dystopia, but genuine characters and a heavy human heart. And once experienced in its fully-realised Final Cut, nothing will ever come close again.A quick glance at the production history, however, shows that things could have turned out very differently. The original screenwriter, Hampton Fancher, fell out with both director Ridley Scott and author Philip K. Dick, who resented the very idea of a Hollywood adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Scott had only come to the project because of the pre-production delays on Dune. He took the job to rid him of that burden and to take his mind off the recent death of his brother.

Scott arrived in Hollywood expecting a free rein after the critical success of The Duellists and the ample box office of Alien. What he got instead was a heavy-handed studio and a very difficult Harrison Ford, who had just cemented his megastar status with Raiders of the Lost Ark. What followed were many miserable months of night shoots, funding issues and voiceover recordings, as the studio re-cut Scott's footage and made Ford record endless voiceovers in case the punters didn't get the plot. This disjointed and expository original cut received mixed reviews and underperformed commercially, and that, it seemed, was that.It has taken a long time for the true version of Blade Runner to come to the surface. But with every passing year, and every new cut that has come along, more of the true nature of this extraordinary work has come to light. Now we have the Final Cut, the only cut over which Scott had full creative control. It is Blade Runner at its most personal, complete and immaculate. Scott believes it to be his best and most personal film; on the basis of this cut, that's not about to change.

Most of the critics who praised Blade Runner the first time round were quick to dismiss the film is visually beautifully but lacking narratively. They were half-right. No-one could deny that the film is breathtakingly beautiful, with every shot perfectly composed and a score of both scenes and images which take one's breath away. The opening shots of the Los Angeles skyline are mesmerising, as is the image of a tower of flame arcing and reflecting in the eye of a nameless observer. These scenes embody what is so special about the film - its ability to take the vast, the mechanical and the dystopian, and find the personal, the hopeful and in human in everything we see.The film has been appropriately described as a neo-noir, since it takes the conventions of classic noirs like The Third Man and retunes them to better suit its own particular choices in terms of themes and character development. Scott clearly has great affection for the various noir motifs, filling his scenes with carefully chosen shadows and beautifully lit cigarette smoke. His visual decisions with both lighting and colour really bring out the sense of mystery and ambiguity which is at the heart of all great noirs. Even without the voiceovers, Deckard is a born natural in the role of unreliable narrator.

But there is so much more to Blade Runner than pretty experiments with light and shade. The true strength of the film lies in its myriad themes and complex exploration of ideas, ranging from man's environmental impact and the nature of advanced urban society, to the spiritual and existential quest for self-knowledge and the boundary between what is human and what is not. Scott's greatest trick is to bring out these ideas through the most subtle and intelligent of visual touches; his background in advertising allows him to offer us multi-layered imagery as a guide in place of dry philosophical meanderings.The most prophetic message of Blade Runner is that the future is far bleaker than we could have imagined. The society presented to us in Blade Runner is akin to our own in one key aspect: we are living with the consequences of what has gone before and are uncertain of where to proceed from here. In this Los Angeles, there is social decay, uneasy multiculturalism, widespread crime, prominent sexuality, massive inequality and an intelligent but emasculated underclass, both in our midst and 'off-world'. The predominant mood is one of gloom, struggle and pathos, embodied by the fact that it is nearly always raining.The replicants in Blade Runner make up this underclass, and are symbolic of both the persistence of slavery and the dangers of technological advancement. The twist is that their status as second-class citizens was not forced upon them by circumstances but preconceived before their creation. Just as all the newborns in Brave New World have their class and intelligence predetermined, so replicants are created with varying levels of intelligence and capabilities, and are all given a four-year lifespan - a failsafe against them 'developing their own emotions' and turning on their creators.Roy Batty's rebellion against his 'father', Dr. Eldon Tyrell, is both the monster turning on his master in the manner of Frankenstein and a powerful religious allegory of the distant relationship between God and Man. Roy, played with terrifying presence by Rutger Hauer, is the Prodigal Son whose intelligence and desire for consciousness lead him to his creator (whether literal or metaphorical). Tyrell is both a benevolent father and some form of monster, showing compassion and understanding while never properly accepting his 'son'. 'Man' rejects 'God', doing literally what Nietzsche described symbolically, and condemns Himself to a short life of loneliness and fear.But that is not the end, for one of the greatest themes of Blade Runner is salvation and redemption. Deckard's encounters between both Roy and Rachael are steeped in the idea that, in the midst of all this uncertainly and terrible injustice, hope can thrive and the true goodness of people can come through. The big question at the heart of the film is this: what does it mean to be human? How can we define what is human and what is not? And - perhaps more importantly - does it matter if we cannot?

So much ink has been spilled over whether or not Deckard is a replicant, and there are strong arguments on both sides; Scott believes that he is, Ford believes that he isn't. Perhaps the real answer lies in a third explanation, namely that the boundaries between human and non-human are now so blurred that definitions of what counts as 'human' are little more than irrelevant expressions of power. The concept of being 'human' is so complicated, so ambiguous and so multi-faceted, that to exclude or demarcate any one body from another through codes, whether moral or political, is pointless. In this situation the only thing that triumphs is love - whether the brotherly love of Roy sparing Deckard's life or the romantic love between Deckard and Rachael.Both these relationships begin with the lines between human and replicant clearly drawn; Deckard is down Roy, and the first time Rachael visits him he dismisses her fondest memories as "implants". But eventually both Roy and Rachael prove a certain kind of devotion toward Deckard, saving his life on one occasion each. These acts of compassion render Deckard's preconceptions obsolete. He undergoes the same act of soul-searching and reaches the same conclusion with both parties; replicant or not, so long as there is love, there is meaning. Both the tender love scene with Rachael and the heartbreaking 'tears in rain' sequence with Roy are the consummations of this revelation; as the dove flies into the sky, Deckard puts his old ways behind him, and surrenders himself to the only thing that matters.Blade Runner is by far and away the greatest film ever made. Every aspect of it from the acting to the Vangelis soundtrack is flawless, both in design and execution. The performances of Harrison Ford and Sean Young are mesmerising, and remain the highlights of their respective careers. It is also Scott's best film by a county mile; for all his great work on Alien and Gladiator, he has never bettered this. Most of all, Blade Runner is an extraordinary odyssey through the human psyche, taking characters in the gutter and using them to focus on the stars. It is, quite simply, perfection.

Rating: 5/5
Verdict: The greatest film of all time


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