Monday, June 18, 2018

Blade Runner (Warner Bros., The Ladd Company, Shaw Brothers, Blade Runner Partnership, 1982, revised 1991)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a movie last night, and it was a doozy: Blade Runner, the 1982 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (a title my late roommate and home-care client John P. thought they should have kept) and, even though it was a box-office disappointment (the film’s estimated budget was $28 million and in its initial release it grossed only $27 million, which under the usual rule of thumb that because of advertising and distribution expenses a movie has to make at least twice its production cost to break even, would mean it was a pretty big money-loser for Warner Bros.), the film that established Dick’s world of surrealism and paranoia as suitable for filming. The film’s opening is quite close to the central premise of Karel Cápek’s play R.U.R. (for “Rossum’s Universal Robots” — the play not only was the first major work about a race of mechanical humanoids but even gave them the name “robots,” from the Czech robotnik, meaning “worker”): a group of humanoid creations, called “robots” in Dick’s novel but here given the catchier, snazzier and separately copyrightable name “replicants,” rebelled on an off-world colony of normal humans and slaughtered them all. Since then replicants have still been allowed on Earth’s off-world colonies but have been banned on Earth itself, and a squad of special police officers called “Blade Runners” are authorized to hunt them down and shoot them on sight — which, the opening title crawl explains, isn’t called “execution” but “retirement.” 

The replicants are made by the Tyrrell Corporation (I assume the name is a deliberate reference to Sir James Tyrrell, Richard III’s hired assassin in Shakespeare’s play) and the company’s founder, Dr. Eldon Tyrrell (Joe Turkel), is shown in the opening scene giving a test to a job applicant, Leon Kowalski (Brion James), to test for emotions like compassion and empathy, the absence of which would give him away as a replicant trying to infiltrate the company. (Blade Runner was made in the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and this premise that replicants differ from humans in showing no compassion “plays” quite differently in an era in which the current President is a man who not only utterly lacks compassion and empathy, but sees their absence as a sign of his personal strength and superiority to the rest of humanity.) When the test exposes Kowalski as a replicant, he draws a gun and starts shooting, and though he’s easily subdued and blows himself up (at least I think that’s what happened), the scene establishes the film’s central conflict even before we meet the central character. He is ace “blade runner” Rick Deckard and is played by Harrison Ford, who until this had been known to movie audiences almost exclusively for uncomplicatedly heroic roles like Han Solo in Star Wars and Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Obviously he wanted to “stretch” his chops as an actor and show he could play a more complicated character, though he’s so taciturn through the whole movie I was expecting a plot twist at the end in which he’d turn out to be a replicant himself. 

The plot consists of Deckart’s search through the mean streets of a post-apocalyptic L.A. swarming with people (mostly Asians — Blade Runner was made during a period of intense American paranoia that the Japanese were going to buy all our major corporations and take over our economy by stealth, and that’s reflected in the movie in the innumerable ads shown for Japanese companies like TDK, Atari and Kawasaki) and bathed in fog. He’s looking for six replicants who shot up an outer-space colony and fled to Earth, and one of them, Rachael (Sean Young, who turns in a highly competent performance that should have marked her for stardom — alas, she ran afoul of Harvey Weinstein and became one of the actresses whose careers he ruined because she wouldn’t have sex with him), becomes his more-or-less love interest. Blade Runner is clearly a great film but it’s also an oddly cold one — ironic given the story’s postulate that emotion is what sets humans apart from replicants — though the visual look is stunning and quite 2001-ish (probably due to Douglas Trumbull’s work as an effects artist on both), and the film also resembles 2001 in its reliance on imagery and use of very little dialogue. It was adapted from Dick’s novel by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, who trusted the story to tell itself and trusted us to get the point without a lot of explanation; and directed by Ridley Scott, who like his star was coming off an enormous blockbuster hit (the original 1979 Alien) that had earned him the brownie points he needed to get a personal project like this green-lighted. Just as the science-fiction novel I’m currently reading, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (a story Ridley Scott optioned for film but never actually got to make), strikes me as the sort of science-fiction novel Ernest Hemingway would have written if he’d ever done one, so Blade Runner strikes me as the sort of science-fiction movie Josef von Sternberg would have made if he’d ever done one: the sheer density of the images, the fumata effects, the overall air of sleazy corruption (one key scene in a bar is straight out of The Shanghai Gesture) and the enigmatic female at the center of the action who may or may not be a replicant (Sean Young doesn’t outright copy Marlene Dietrich but the air of world-weary inscrutability is definitely there) are quite Sternbergian. 

So is the excellence of the ensemble cast, which includes a brief but indelible star turn for the young Daryl Hannah; Rutger Hauer shines as Roy Batty, the out-and-proud replicant who infiltrates Tyrrell’s compound and murders both him and his chief genetic engineer, J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), after they inform him there’s no way they can reverse the “terminator” gene that cuts short a replicant’s life after just four years (if they let them live longer than that, the theory goes, they could develop memories from which they could derive emotions, and then they’d be indistinguishable from humans on the standard tests). The confrontation scene between the three is by far the best in the film: it seems to me to come closer to the spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein than any of the films of Frankenstein itself. Blade Runner and 2001 also have one intriguing point in common: narration, or the lack of same. Through much of the planning for 2001 Stanley Kubrick had planned to have a third-person narrator running through the film explaining the plot as it went, and even hired an actor to read it (Douglas Rain, who ended up in the film as the voice of HAL), but he ended up deciding against it almost at the last minute. In Blade Runner Warner Bros. insisted at the last minute on adding a first-person narration by Harrison Ford’s character, much to Ridley Scott’s opposition, so the first theatrical release of Blade Runner in 1982 went out with a narration that made it seem like even more of a science-fiction film noir than it does without one. (Blade Runner is often referred to as the first science-fiction film noir, which it isn’t; I’d give that honor to Donald Siegel’s original 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a much better movie than the remakes.) The version we were watching was a DVD of the 1991 “director’s cut,” whose main difference from the 1982 version was that Scott got to eliminate the narration and thereby make the story foggier and more elliptical — much to its benefit, I suspect, just as Kubrick’s last-minute elimination of the narration from 2001 gave the film much of its hallucinatory power. (Most of the proposed narration for 2001 ended up in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the story.) There’s been a further tweak of the material in a 2007 edition called the “final cut” — this incessant tweaking with something that was presumably a finished product recalls George Lucas being asked by a New Yorker interviewer when he was going to stop tinkering with the Star Wars movies, to which he answered, “When I die” — though my understanding is there weren’t any big changes between 1991 and 2007.  

Blade Runner is also interesting in light of the controversy in the science-fiction world today over why sci-fi writers of the 1950’s and 1960’s offered hopeful versions of the future, with energy abundance, interplanetary travel, moving sidewalks and flying cars, and now all they seem to generate is dystopian futures and post-nuclear or post-plague apocalypses. The odd thing about Blade Runner is that though it’s clearly dystopian, it still has flying cars and an overall high-tech sheen — in 1982 even the dystopian visions of the future were cooler than the one we actually got! In fact, one could make the case that instead of proceeding outward as most science-fiction writers of the past predicted — towards space, towards gargantuan cities and the development of snazzier and more convenient infrastructure — the technological development that’s actually occurred has been turned inward, with the rise of the Internet and its progeny (notably social media and the smartphone), that have allowed people more and more to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, form smaller and smaller (and more exclusive) communities, and thereby lose any sense of a common purpose for humanity — which explains quite a lot of the political evolution of the last 40 years or so and in particular the rise of Libertarianism, with its exaltation of the rich and powerful as morally superior because they are rich and powerful (actually the philosophy is that their moral and intellectual superiority are proven by their wealth and power) and its insistence that, as Margaret Thatcher put it, “There is no such thing as ‘society.’ There are only individuals.” Movies as a form have always tended to glorify the heroic individual facing the corrupt, oppressive social order, and what makes Blade Runner a great but also rather off-putting (at least to me) film is that its makers are at once presenting Harrison Ford’s character as an heroic individual facing down a corrupt order and undermining our ability to see him as such. The material could readily have accommodated a Fahrenheit 451-style twist ending in which Deckert realizes that massacring replicants is wrong and switches to the other side, but Ridley Scott and his writers wisely didn’t go there.