Dir. Ridley Scott. Starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young
The opening shots of Blade Runner are a watershed moment, every bit as essential to the canon of opening scenes as Star Wars or Clockwork Orange or The Searchers. It is a perfect establishing shot, so much more than “look at this building we’re in.” It sets a tone for the entire film; whatever we think about Los Angeles, whatever we suppose it could be in November 2019, is not half as dark and engrossing as what Scott and his team show us. Los Angeles looks like the surface of the Death Star, but with more jets of fire thrown into the sky. A flying taxi skirts towards us, just to show us, I suppose, that people still live there. A blue eye, reflecting the endless city lights, recalls the Stargate in 2001, flipping a moment of petrified wonder into something more grotesque and accepting. Vangelis’ music hits just the right mixture of melody and sound effect, mirroring the dark beauty and foreboding of the physical setting.
What gets me about this opening sequence is that it is haunting and moody and beautiful: then the film does it over and over again for two hours more. Sun is replaced by neon, sky with fog, skyscrapers with monolithic skyscrapers and great industrial ziggurats. We’re no wiser about how things came to be like this, or what people do for work, or who’s the president now, or whose music is played in clubs and bars. World building is not an intellectual exercise in Blade Runner; it’s a purely visual one; in that way, it can stand up to the pretentious adjective “cinematic.” We know enough replicants and about the team of Roy (Hauer), Pris (Daryl Hannah in full weird mode), Leon (Brion James), and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) to go on; we understand that they’ve come home to live longer; we know that Rachael (Young) is something more than a replicant and something less than a human; we know that Deckard (Ford) and Gaff (Edward James Olmos, who I was not expecting) are replicant killers. It hardly seems to matter what the action of the story itself is, or what happened in the characters’ past, or the lore of 2019, when the style of the picture is so magnificent and captivating. It does matter, obviously, and I think the film has something of an undeserved reputation for emotional distance. But when they talk about Blade Runner fifty years from now, they’ll still breathlessly laud its style.
The film feels like it’s in slow-motion, even in action-heavy moments. (Shout-out to the time when Zhora is going through every window front in Los Angeles after Deckard shoots her, and it actually is in slow-motion.) It takes ages for Deckard to find evidence in a photograph, and when he does there are shades of the Arnolfini Marriage in it. Pris does her Aly Raisman floor routine impression, and it takes too long for her to come up to speed. While Deckard becomes Roy’s hunted, the fingers that Roy breaks, the tile that Roy’s head bursts through, the giant leap Roy makes from one building to the next all seem to happen as slowly as a dove flying up from a roof. It hardly makes the film more suspenseful – it becomes obvious very quickly that Roy wants a witness to his death more than he wants to kill Deckard – but it adds a physical unreality to match the obscurity of the setting itself. It’s hardly slow cinema, but it’s cinema at 85% of the speed you’d usually expect, and 60% of what an audience would expect from its sci-fi, special-effects summer blockbuster now.
The primary challenge to reality from a character perspective is, of course, the story of the replicants and their effect on humans. It is cliche to create a world in which the robots are the most human and the humans the most robotic, but Blade Runner indulges freely in it. Roy is the person in this movie, with his toothy leer and his real kisses to shower on Pris and his genuine mourning and his playful vengeance and his knowing smile when he watches Deckard lose his grip, and his insight about the fragility of memories and “tears in rain.” He’s so human that he makes previously inhuman characters personalities; Deckard (who approached sex with Rachael with all of the dexterity and romance of a teenage Steven Spielberg, and whose most human moment in the film is an improvised nasal voice while impersonating some government toady) looks at him with the most incredulous face, pity mixed with understanding mixed with relief mixed with respect. It’s a shining moment in Ford’s acting career; Hauer, with his ’50s beefcake body and a rough, accented voice, brings such tenderness to a movie which had, maybe fifteen minutes before, lingered on Daryl Hannah’s bloody body, shaking and writhing as if plugged into a live socket.
Science fiction, at the highest levels, is obsessed with discussing humanity. 2001 is, as always, the absolute gold standard, comparing Dave and HAL, Moon-Watcher and the Starchild along an evolutionary spectrum. Star Wars, for all of its technical bombast, makes C-3PO, R2-D2, and Chewbacca into characters we feel for as much as Luke or Han or Leia. E.T. and The Wrath of Khan, released in 1982 like Blade Runner, are deeply interested in the question as well. E.T. indelibly shares a soul with Elliot; after dispatching the ubermensch Khan, Kirk’s eulogy for Spock famously calls his first officer’s soul “the most…human.”
The discussion of who is or is not a replicant in this film seems interesting, but superfluous. Is Deckard a replicant? The right answer – who really cares? – has a second-best answer, which is, “It certainly seems like it, but who cares?” The post-theatrical versions certainly do seem to imply it, what with dreams of unicorns reflected in tiny paper unicorns, dropped off by Gaff in Deckard’s apartment; Gaff, who dresses like his favorite song is “Zoot Suit Riot”and whose limp would almost certainly keep him off the front lines of Los Angeles, is certainly Deckard’s superior. Is he Deckard’s keeper, too, the one who accesses his “memories?” It’s equally possible that the unicorn is a warning, in the same vein as “It’s too bad she won’t live – but who does?” Or maybe Gaff, who seems to have a certain wryness in his eyes, is just toying with Deckard at a weak moment: he’ll be back. Or maybe it’s the sign to kill Rachael in the elevator, when she will least suspect her retirement. As unlikely as that is, that last one was the one that burst into my head as the doors close on them. Deckard, who can’t possibly be in love but who has become invested in believing he is, will have to make a choice in that elevator. In any event, he will either have to make a very human choice – die for love – or return to the deadened state that just about everyone has fallen into at the lower levels of Los Angeles. Although everyone is an individual – think Sebastian’s animatronics, which are about a zillion times weirder than the unicorn, or Roy’s eloquence, or Gaff’s outfits, or Rachael’s piano playing, or Pris’ airbrushed makeup – it’s hard to find genuine emotional output among any but a handful of them. You’re either emotionally malnourished if you’re a human, living in a corporatist world and dreaming of the day you get to leave the planet forever, or you live in crippling fear as a replicant, unable to develop emotions healthily. It’s much safer to hunker down.
A better question, then, that Blade Runner works with, is not “What is it to be human?” but “What is it to be authentic?” The first memorable bit of dialogue in the film comes when Leon is taking the empathy test to see if he’s a human or a replicant. The Blade Runner asks Leon about a tortoise. “What’s a tortoise?” Leon says, a little more brusquely than necessary. Upon hearing that it’s like a turtle, he tells his interrogator that he knows what a turtle is, though he’s never seen one. It’s laughable at the time. And then we begin to realize that the anthropocentric future has eliminated animals except the cloned ones; even relatively prosaic critters like owls and snakes are fabricated, not naturally occurring. The people and the replicants are not unlike the animals; none of them can really said to be the genuine article. Roy, who has tasted something like real feeling, has come back to Earth in the hopes of getting his maker, Dr. Tyrell (Joe “Lloyd” Turkel) to extend his lifespan, and presumably the lifespans of his cohort. Rachael is maybe a little closer than Roy in terms of faking empathy, but couldn’t have come up with a statement like “tears in rain” if she had a lifespan of a thousand years. Deckard looks like he would shrivel up and die without replicants to retire; Gaff is much the same way, though he would do so more fashionably. From that perspective, it’s no surprise that Deckard decides he wants to fall in love with Rachael; it’s a desperate grasp for something real, sort of like if you mashed up Winston Smith from 1984 and any middle-aged man from a Sondheim musical. Everything is made up in Los Angeles; the home of Disneyland was always a simulacrum; why shouldn’t Deckard pretend that his romance is real and, by hoping and pretending (and creepily pressuring Rachael) hard enough, turn it into something legitimate?
Blade Runner, in the words of Yeats, would not have been natural in an age like this; J.J. Abrams would have made a jigsaw puzzle out of the film and reduced its mystery to a formula to delight crowdsourcing Internet Encyclopedia Browns. Scott knows his genre better than Abrams does, mercifully. He knows that this is the true neo-noir, a term which hasn’t meant much since the mid-70s but which, at its purest, is distilled in works like Fargo or Pulp Fiction or No Country for Old Men. Keep the world-weary man at the center, and throw a decorative porcelain woman playing mysterious into the mix. Create a mystery, and ensure that no one can really unravel the twine. If it’s California, don’t let it be recognizable to John Huston or Billy Wilder. Bringing neo-noir into the (semi-)distant future is the impressive element of what, with different costumes and a marginally different sequence of events, might have been a classic film noir. When the state of science fiction film at the time could split itself neatly into “space opera” and “friendly aliens,” Blade Runner ponders deeply on a more earthbound, intimate, and beautiful topic; behind the veneer of ’80s shoulderpads in the future and countless models of twinkling husks of skyscrapers, people are at the faintly beating heart of the film.