Program Notes: Blade Runner (1982)

I might as well admit it up front.

I'm not a big fan of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

Oh, I'm aware that in the 31 years since its release the film has become perhaps the biggest cult flick of all time (its main competition is probably The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but I suspect there's not much audience overlap). Every time it is re-released on disc with new bells and whistles a tremor of delicious expectation surges through geekdom.

And I do appreciate the movie's virtues. Its art direction and cinematography are top of the line (and despite the movie's now-primitive technology the special effects are every bit as good as today's digital dabbling). And no other movie has so formed our ideas about a dystopian future (Tokyo, monsoon, perpetual night).

It's just that dramatically Blade Runner has always left me cold.

Film Screening:
Blade Runner (1982)
Monday, Mar. 18 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

Consider:

The film contains Harrison Ford's single worst performance.

As the "blade runner" Deckard, the former cop called out of retirement to track down a gang of rebel replicants (genetically-created slave laborers), the venerable star seems more pouty child than hard-bitten detective.

Moreover, he's given to clownish displays of slack-jawed, dumbfounded amazement that reek of amateur hour.

Things were even worse in the original 1982 release version, where Ford was required to provide voiceover narration that uncomfortably parodied old-school hard-boiled detective dialogue. Reportedly the narration was foisted upon Scott and Ford by studio suits nervous that bonehead ticket buyers wouldn't know up from down without somebody holding our hands.

It's long been rumored that Ford deliberately gave inept line readings, hoping to sabotage the narration so that it would never be used. Most Blade Runner DVD and Blu-Ray editions offer the film with and without the voiceover. Avoid it unless you're a glutton for punishment.

The movie's most interesting idea isn't developed adequately.

We learn that after physically superior replicants rebelled against their masters, the scientists who created them built in a genetic time bomb. After a few years of labor, the replicants' bodies break down. Depending upon when he was "born," a replicant can pinpoint within a few days when he will die.

What must it be like to live with that knowledge? That's the single most evocative notion raised by Blade Runner, yet the film almost totally ignores it.

We can assume that this ticking-clock mortality is one of the reasons that the rebel replicants (played by Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, and Brion James) have fled their slave-labor camp on a distant planet and returned to Earth, bent on revenge against the industrialist who created them. But the film never spends enough time with the fugitives to let them reveal their feelings about this encoded death sentence.

The movie's hero is portrayed as its villain. And vice versa.

Roy Batty (Hauer), the blond, musclebound leader of the rebel replicants, is the film's best character. Heck, he should be its hero.

He's both child and man (he's only a few years old). Whatever memories he has are artificial ones, supplied by his manufacturers in an effort to maintain a psychologically stable product. Yet he has somehow broken free of his programming to become a thinking, questioning, dreaming individual.

Granted, he's devoted to destroying his makers, but who can blame him for his sense of outrage?

Yet the movie treats Batty as a villain, a Frankenstein's monster who ruthlessly torments and kills human beings. We view Batty and his fellow replicants almost exclusively from the perspective of Deckard. It's a typical cop-chasing-crook approach.

We're asked to identify throughout with Deckard. He's the good guy, right?

It's only in the film's final scene, when Batty realizes he is losing control of his dying body, that the real humanity of the character is revealed in an achingly poetic final speech:

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

And to further drive home the idea, just prior to delivering those words Batty tries to control his numb hand by driving a rusty nail through the palm, hoping the pain will allow him to regain movement. It's a shocking bit of Christian imagery.

Conversely, Deckard isn't very interesting, being equal parts dyspepsia and heavy-drinking film noir clichés. The movie hints that Deckard is himself a replicant (presumably one of the earlier versions without auto-destruct built in), but the idea is so tentative that nobody seems to know for sure.

And in any case, that fuzzy suggestion isn't enough to make him compelling. Nor is the non-committal love subplot involving Sean Young's character (a beautiful replicant who doesn't realize she's not human).

For these reasons I cannot watch Blade Runner without seeing it as a missed opportunity. The setup is crammed with opportunities for greatness, most of which the film blithely avoids.

Other films in the series “While the City Sleeps: After Dark”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

The series complements While the City Sleeps, the 2013 Adult Winter Reading Program.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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