In my continuing (and eternal) quest to fill in cinematic blind spots, one at a time, I decided to take a journey into the future and watch Blade Runner, a film known for being one of the definitive works of science fiction cinema. It is actually pretty bizarre that I had never previously seen Blade Runner, considering how much of an aficionado I am of post-apocalyptic dystopias. I suppose one can’t get around to everything when they are supposed to, so I’ll just say I am glad that I finally got the opportunity to fix one of the most glaring omissions of my personal cinematic canon.
Blade Runner is one of the most famous science fiction films, yet many are still not aware of what it is and where it comes from. Based on a novel by Phillip K. Dick (one of the definitive voices of science fiction literature) with the delightful title of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner is centered around Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a Los Angeles detective in the year 2019, who is assigned the task of “retiring” (which actually means “killing in brutal and macabre ways”) a group of replicants, which are essentially human in every way and function, with the exception that they are androids, and have a knack for violence. However, Blade Runner is a film that is preoccupied with the concept of humanity, and thus we explore this concept through the lens of a futuristic society.
Blade Runner is set in the future – as I mentioned above, it takes place in the year 2019. Considering the year we are currently in, it is difficult to fathom that were are technically supposed to be very close to the events of Blade Runner, or at least the people residing in the year 1982 would think so. However, it handles the concept of the future remarkably well, and I can honestly say that this is one of the more realistic futuristic films in existence. However, we will get to the specifics of that idea very soon. The reason I bring the concept of the future up is because it obviously frames the film and influences our thinking, and unlike many other futuristic films, it has a firm grasp on what is realistic and what is not realistic. But let’s get to that in a little while. I want to first look at some more technical and traditional aspects of Blade Runner.
Is there an actor more greedy than Harrison Ford? Not only does he have a monopoly on two hugely successful characters in big-budget blockbusters that entertain crowds to this very day – Han Solo and Indiana Jones – he also has to go and star in an iconic science fiction film. Now it is easy to think of Ford as a grizzled old action veteran in today’s standards (its fun too!), but we need to remember that behind that often hardened exterior, there is a pretty wonderful actor that deserves to be as iconic as he is, and whereas Han Solo needed Ford to be a wisecracking but likable fool, and Indiana Jones required a certain level of action skills, Blade Runner is a far more complex role – and we can see this in the fact that this role was almost nearly played by Dustin Hoffman, with other names in consideration including Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, Al Pacino and Burt Reynolds, for some reason. This was clearly never intended to be a straightforward action role, and Deckard proves himself to be a fascinating character, and thus it requires an actor that can balance the action aspects of this film, as well as the complex character development and dramatic motives present in this film. Ford handles the material well and grasps the dramatic nuances of the character brilliantly. This may not be the defining role of Ford’s career, but when you’re the scene-stealer in Star Wars, anything else you do might as well be forgotten because you will forever be associated with that genre – but it doesn’t look like the well-beloved Harrison Ford minds, because he is a brilliant enough actor to make good decisions, and Blade Runner was a wonderful decision. When you’re as good as Harrison Ford, you are allowed to be greedy in the vast amount of iconic roles you populate your career with.
The best part of Blade Runner was not Ford, however. It came from cinematic treasure and a man who has a permanent residence in my nightmares, Rutger Hauer. His character of Roy Batty is quite a fascinating one – he is the antithesis of the villain of every kind of science fiction film. He is a complex, multi-faceted character that has something many other villains in lesser films lack – a motivation. Batty is not evil for the sake of being evil, he is simply someone with an agenda that goes against what is normal (what a way to describe a villain, right?). It also helps that Hauer is perfect for the role – he is menacing without being cartoonish, and his performance as Batty is sinister and complicated, which is a great testament to everyone involved that went into the creation of this character, particularly Hauer, who gives a defining performance. Hauer is fantastic in this film and deserves every piece of acclaim he receives for this performance. Truly an iconic and underrated villain, and one that doesn’t quite subscribe to the stereotypical menacing antagonist character, a fact we can even see on the surface, with his name being painfully ordinary and simple – it lends itself to a sense of reality, which is a theme I find utterly fascinating about Blade Runner.
The supporting cast of Blade Runner has a very unfortunate flaw – it is populated by some pretty bad performances. None of them were outright terrible, but the likes of Sean Young, Joe Turkel and Edward James Olmos were very odd and difficult to make sense of. They weren’t awful, but they didn’t quite fit into what I’d expect. When one experiences powerhouse performances like those provided by Ford and Hauer, it is difficult to keep up with them. The problem is this film doesn’t really care, as the writing constantly fails the actors – good writing can hide the most horrendous actor, but a mediocre performance is only accentuated even more through a lacklustre script. I’m not sure who to blame, but there were a few moments where I found myself bewildered at the dialogue being presented. The writing was quite a problem in this otherwise wonderful film, and it hurt my experience of the film quite a bit. None of these actors were particularly awful, but I just wish more careful attention was placed, because it can be quite distracting to the viewer. Yet, I digress.
Blade Runner is a film known for how it looks. It is set in Los Angeles, and unlike a massively futuristic version, it is rather set in an uncanny version of the city – a city that seems so familiar, yet unfamiliar. It arises a sense of uneasiness in the viewer, and thus we feel both repulsed and attracted to the visual aesthetic of this film. I will credit this partially to the production design. Production design plays a far more important role than people would imagine, and it is shown here in Blade Runner, where the design of the city itself creates a sense of confusion and repulsion in the viewer – and considering this film is set in 2019, it isn’t that distant from what could be true. Add a flying car or two to Los Angeles, and Blade Runner suddenly doesn’t look all that odd.
In terms of more formal cinematic design, Blade Runner features some stunning cinematography and editing. It is fascinating that the film wasn’t photographed by someone incredibly well-known, but rather by Jordan Cronenweth, who isn’t obscure, but not someone I would’ve thought would be able to bring about the aesthetic shown in Blade Runner, especially if you went on to photograph films such as Best Friends, Peggy Sue Got Married and the greatest concert film of all time, Stop Making Sense. Visually, Blade Runner is sufficient for anyone who wants something unique and fascinating, both in terms of the style and substance of the design, both cinematic and artistic.
One aspect of Blade Runner that I found quite fascinating was the fact that despite this being a dystopian science-fiction film, it is very different to many dystopian films. Let’s take Brazil, one of the more endearing and beloved dystopian films – Blade Runner serves as its polar opposite, because unlike many other dystopian films, Blade Runner is not obsessed with representing what the future might look like, populating it with quaint characters and complex machinery that amuses more than it functions. Blade Runner is a dark and grizzly film that has its roots in realism, despite being set in the future. It isn’t a film made to predict the future in a fictional way – it is a cautionary warning that this is what the future might look like if we are not careful. Personally, I doubt anyone would want to live in the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. Give me the London from Nineteen Eighty-Four any day. The world of Blade Runner is unique and complex, and utterly terrifying in how possible it is for our own world to end up looking like this.
Blade Runner is not a complete science fiction film, because it is blended with another genre, film noir. In fact, I will say that it combines so perfectly with that sub-genre that Blade Runner is even more of a noir than it is a science fiction film. It features all the classic elements – a conflicted and mysterious protagonist, a complex femme fatale and complexity through narrative. Ridley Scott designed a fascinating example of film noir in a different setting, and it shows in the sheer brilliance of this films narrative drive to representing the detective story in a unique and innovative way.
I won’t deny that I am a bit of a rookie Existentialist (its something that keeps me upbeat, strange as it seems), and there are three core questions about humanity I’ve tried to formulate, especially in relation to Existentialism in literature and cinema – (i) who are we?, (ii) where are we going? and (iii) how are we going to get there? Blade Runner takes a stance on trying to understanding what humanity is through the concept of creating a protagonist who may very well not be human himself, and give him the task of exterminating well-crafted imitations of life, while questioning a humanity he may not even be a part of. Forget the visuals, or the acting, or the narrative – the fact that Blade Runner takes such a unique stance on trying to look at humanity in the way that it does instantly makes this a masterpiece. Honestly, there are many science fiction films that are way better, but almost none of them are as audacious in looking at the human race as Blade Runner. I would love to fully flesh-out this concept, but that’s for another day. Believe me, I have quite a bit to say about this, and I certainly will, just not right now.
So Blade Runner – an audacious and unique science fiction that blends itself seamlessly with film noir to bring about a wonderful film, led excellently by the always reliable Harrison Ford and the sublime Rutger Hauer. Ignoring some weak performances, Blade Runner as a whole is an incredibly complex and fascinating film that serves as a great piece of science fiction as it does a critical analysis of what humanity is. There is a reason why Blade Runner is a classic, and now that I finally know, I can’t wait to rewatch it over and over, finding all the beautiful nuances in this incredible film.