It opens with fire. The flames bloom out along the center of the screen, red and gold against a midnight world where all the stars have fallen from the sky and now burn and burn in a city at once as familiar and vivid as a dream. “Come in,” a man says, standing alone in a room full of bright blue light. Smoke skirls around him. These are the first two words spoken by a human in this film. I, like these characters we immediately distrust, obey. I come into this world of smoky blue light and strange, whirring sounds. Come in, I think to myself. These words are indicative, I think, of the film that follows.
I’d debated reviewing Blade Runner for a long time. It’s an important film for me, high up on the roster of my personal canon. Trying to explain what it is about a film like Blade Runner that makes it so great is akin to explaining what’s so great about a first kiss, the cheese left on a wrapper after a burger or a pint of flat beer on a hot Saturday afternoon. It simply is.
I realized as I watched Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) walk up to a food bar under blankets of rain, zeppelin droning overhead, that I cannot watch this movie without falling completely into the world it presents me. I believe in this world, in the rain and in buildings that emerge from the inked in pages of a noirish comic strip I always wanted to read but never could quite find. I believe in Deckard the Blade Runner, in his chopsticks and in the threads of wood that come splintering off them as he prepares them for a watery, delicious looking meal.
Deckard’s boss – or former boss who he has a terse relationship with over a pair of shotglasses held ready in a drawer – is a hunter. Either he’s a hunter or he was a hunter, evidenced by the lamp on his desk that has shades stenciled in with the images of men squatting, smiling, over dead animals. I find myself wondering where Bryant got this lamp, when he stopped hunting and started having others hunt for him. I wonder why Deckard let’s this happen. Later in the film, Deckard takes a sip of vodka from a shotglass and the blood from his lip swirls about in the light, like a snake or a coil of red smoke. This is a world so well imagined I believe in it on every level I can touch.
Perhaps conveniently, I recently finished reading Dan Simmons’ novel Hyperion, a vertigo inducing tale of a world at the far reaches of unknown space where time moves backwards and something terrible stalks within it. I think on Hyperion while I watch the smoke rising around Deckard’s face in Blade Runner, hearing about Replicants and what they were designed to do – copy human beings in every way except their emotions. I think about Hyperion because, like that book, Blade Runner doesn’t spoon feed its audience. It expects the audience to have the focus to follow it as it weaves its strange, startling tale. “The only way you can hurt him is to kill him,” Bryant explains to Deckard. Deckard stretches his neck. He’s bored.
It startles me, sometimes, how much better I prefer the effects in Blade Runner to the effects in, nearly any science fiction film from the past ten or twelve years. The buildings, freckled with pixels of light, are as rain stained, real and tangible as the keyboard under my fingertips. The sky is so dark, and I simply know it’s because we turned it that way. We polluted our planet to the point that the sun looks like it’s on the far side of a curtain. No one explains this to me. I just know it.
“Do you like our owl?” a woman asks on the screen. She’s beautiful. Her voice is calm, collected, yet politely accusatory and utterly seductive. Her fashion is somehow retrospective yet modern. In the future we’ve gone backwards, the film proposes. We’ve reached blindly backwards, looking for whatever it is that we lost along the way. She’s easily irritated, and when her boss sends her away I immediately want her to come back. Her name is Rachael. She too, is a replicant.
By the center of the film – for a film like this has a middle, but its middle and its center are different – I’ve come to realize that Blade Runner is, at its core, a detective story in the spirit of Hammet’s Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe. James Elroy would watch this echo of Los Angeles and feel right at home. Blade Runner isn’t an action film – it’s a science fiction, but only on it’s fringes. At it’s heart, Blade Runner is film noir at its very finest.
I don’t simply mean that the stye, or the tone of the film is noir. I mean that the film is noir – every spray of light, every whir of machinery, every drop of rain, every shaft of light and every whirl of smoke add up to a world as mysterious as it is obvious. The hopelessness of the world makes it obvious, but the mystery remains – how did we lose our hope? What magic went out with it, and can magic like that, once extinguished, ever be rekindled?
I used to dream about a sequence wherein a zeppelin, frequent in this vision of Los Angeles, passed nearby over a glass ceilinged arboretum. Soon after, Deckard sits at his piano and thinks of a unicorn running through a world of green leaves and rising mist, an earth he can remember but has never seen. Along the lip of the piano are photos, sheet music, a bottle of whiskey and a revolver. I assume the revolver is loaded. Moments like this, when a character is introduced, developed and explored without so much as a word, are when Blade Runner really shines.
The film’s soundtrack is also one of the film’s greatest – and perhaps most under appreciated – qualities. There’s a scene I think of wherein Deckard, after having been abandoned by Rachael, leans out his window and peers out over city streets dark and deep as caverns. He’s sipping on a glass of his piano whiskey, watching nothing and listening to the sounds of police sirens echo up from the distance, as though out of a memory only he is privy to. Later, Rachael strokes the keys of a piano as Deckard dreams.
There are questions in this film. The primary question is framed best by a woman – or a pseudo woman – smashing through a window and falling to her death as manufactured snow floats all around her. I consider this scene, watching the lights slide across the shards of glass like so many shooting stars. The woman, the snow, the lights – everything in the scene is manufactured, designed, fake. Everything about the scene is artificial except the death itself, and the tear that rolls along the woman’s cheek as her spirit leaves her. The question is here, I know it. I just don’t know what it is.
Here is a world where sequins wash off with water. The glamor, while gorgeous, fades away in a matter of moments. Quietness can and will inevitably explode into extreme violence. Morality is a farce, survival is key. The human characters in Blade Runner are far less interesting – aside from Deckard himself – than the Replicants that walk among them. Their collective humanity is brutal, selfish, believable and at times agonizing in its truthfulness. They are, in some ways, more advanced versions of ourselves.
Here I arrive at the twin heartbeats of this magnificent film. On the one hand we have Rachael (the beautiful Replicant I already mentioned) played by Sean Young and on the other we have Roy Beatty, played by the criminally underrated Rutger Hauer. Both are played with equal beauty and believability in this film, and they comprise the two halves of the story. Rachael’s story is one of love, faith and hope, while Roy’s is one of disillusionment and enlightenment.
Harrison Ford is at the top of his game here, beleaguered in the way that only he can be, always ambiguous yet somehow sympathetic. We root for him even when he cannot root for himself. I love seeing films like this, when actors and directors were young together and the ambition of their vision was unrestrained by the wisdom that comes with age. Blade Runner is a movie that probably should have failed on a hundred levels, but instead succeeds on every single molecular level. It is just that damn good.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” Roy Beatty confides to Deckard late in the film. “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” With that quote – a large jewel set into a crown of jewels – Blade Runner earns its place high up on my list of favorite films, a shining example of how well a great book can be turned into a great movie. In the end, the questions that are so hard to pronounce are irrelevant. The answers are plain. Any being capable of loving and mourning deserves more than to live in fear.
The Good: The score.
The Better: The score and the light and the photography.
The Best: The sum of all the parts, greater than the whole, and all in all one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen.
The Bottom Line: See this movie if you like intellectual filmmaking, good action, and a story you will not soon forget.
Overall Score: 9.8/10