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BLADE RUNNER (review)

blade_runnerBLADE RUNNER

Directed by Ridley Scott / Written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples / Starring Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah

Rachael: Have you ever retired a human by mistake?

I may not be what many would consider the biggest science fiction fan around, but I have seen enough of the classics, the films that helped to shape the genre and that would go on to be referenced in subsequent films for decades afterwards. And for me, there is no other piece of science fiction that even comes close to the level of genius that is Ridley Scott’s neo-noir masterpiece, BLADE RUNNER. From its incredible synthesizer score by Vangelis to the philosophical questions the movie poses about memory, genetic engineering and what it means to be “human”, the film reveals its many hidden layers viewing after viewing, giving us an almost new experience no matter how many times we’ve seen it.

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Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s seminal science fiction novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, Scott’s film takes Dick’s examination of existence even further, and asks us to sympathize with the androids as they struggle to come to terms with their own fate and search for self. But it is so much more than just that; it is also a much more visually consuming experience than I had ever imagined it to be when reading it on the page.

BLADE RUNNER opens with an explanation that in the future, replicants (robots) have been created to perform the mundane tasks that humans no longer want to do. But when a group of these replicants goes rogue from their assigned post on another planet, deciding to return to Earth, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a retired police officer, is assigned with terminating them, or as it is known in this context, retiring them. This brings us to Los Angeles in the year 2019, something I never manage to remember because the film is incredibly successful in making its audience forget it is set in the United States, what with its numerous overlapping cultures.

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The opening shot sets the visual tone for the entire film, and it is, in one word, overwhelming. A nighttime aerial view of a dystopian cityscape, pillars explode with fire while hover cars zoom past over the horizon, and hundreds of thousands of lights shine like stars. This is Scott’s brilliant depiction of the future as envisioned in 1982. These are practical special effects, spearheaded by effects guru, Douglas Trumbell (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE TREE OF LIFE) long before CGI was an affordable choice for filmmakers; these sets actually had to be constructed, one of the film’s many glorious achievements (the film’s two Oscar nods were for art direction and visual effects, not surprisingly). Cut to a close up of an eye, the same cityscape is brilliantly reflected in that eye and we are seeing what that eye is seeing. Aside from being visually striking, this also serves as a function to show the audience an important piece of information about the story: the focus on the eyes.

In BLADE RUNNER, suspected replicants undergo a Voight-Kampff test, a sort of variation of the Turing test, that examines the eye and records responses to questions that should evoke empathy in the test subject. Not only is Scott using the narrative to let us know that a lot can be seen in the eyes of the characters, but he is showing us as well. The replicants have this ghostly red reflection in their eyes, something that has been somewhat of a debate over the years among the film’s many fans. Characters portrayed by Darryl Hannah, Sean Young and Rutger Hauer all have this mysterious red gleam in their eyes that is never explained, but my guess is it denotes that they’re different from humans. That said, there are times when even Ford’s character also has this red light coming from his eyes. It isn’t consistent but it is enough to sway the debate on his own artificial existence as well.

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The design of the film is universally lauded for creating such a complex visceral world, as well as for the effect that world has on the viewer. Scott drew his inspiration from 40’s and 50’s noir films as well as from German expressionism for much of the visual style; stark lighting, odd camera angles, long shadows and of course the famed femme fatale interaction that transpires between Deckard and Rachael (Young), all come together to inform the unique tone. The rainy downtown streets of Los Angeles are lit up by video screens blasting advertisements in our faces and there are constant spotlights moving throughout the city, peering into the homes and apartments of its inhabitants. Here, what we see helps to shape how we feel, which is that 1980’s futuristic feeling of big brother always watching. Who is doing the watching though? Is it the police, or corporate giants like the Tyrell Corporation, who seem to reside somewhere above the working class of the city? While the real 2019 may not end up looking quite like this depiction, the kind of government and corporate control shown here is not so far a stretch and the sense of paranoia, the constantly being watched, runs throughout the film.

One of the reasons BLADE RUNNER has had such an enduring legacy is because Scott is smart enough to take us out of this world as well, making the film genuinely dynamic by blending genres. All at once we are watching a noir crime thriller, a cyber-punk tech fantasy and an existential western film. There is even a short but stunning scene, in which Deckard is left alone on the streets and the camera moves to show a stone archway, blocking out the rest of the city view as a dozen cyclists ride by, that feels much like a Samurai film. Bleeding genres into each other is just another part of what makes the BLADE RUNNER experience a truly unforgettable one and allowed Scott, who had just come off his first big success with ALIEN, to establish himself as directorial force.

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BLADE RUNNER isn’t a film you can watch passively; it demands your attention. From the tiniest of details found in the mesmerizing visuals to the philosophical dialogue that unfolds and the heartbreaking climax, it is quite clear why this is science fictions greatest masterpiece. There are many films that have tried to replicate it, and perhaps some have even come close to creating a world half as intriguing, but it has never been surpassed. BLADE RUNNER is a film I come back to again and again and enjoy more and more each time. It holds a special place in my heart as both a reminder of the magic that is cinema, as well as how precious life is, be that real or artificial.

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