The original Blade Runner – Days of Future Passed

I haven’t written in awhile, due to a general exhaustion with popular films, the sameness of every preview I see, and the substitution of CGI for character development. Is it possible to have drama without special effects? It’s as if we are so numbed out that we forget the emotions of everyday life: the nervousness of going to a job interview, the anger felt when cut off in traffic, the happiness of seeing a loved one after a long separation. Perhaps these are not cinematic enough? I find that cartoon violence I see in so many films is largely consequence-free and thus boring. This fake violence inoculates us from fear and gives us a safe cinematic zone. One that, for some reason, seems to be needed now more than ever. Back in the first days of film, when audiences were unfamiliar with the medium, they would shy away from an onscreen speeding locomotive. Today they are only comfortable with a speeding locomotive, running over an super hero who pops up unharmed.

Another issue is the plethora of movie sequels, which I call “sequela” (“a condition that is the consequence of a previous disease or injury”). Despite this, I look forward to the upcoming Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049.  It prompted me to go back and take a fresh look at the original director’s cut of Blade Runner, which is set in fast-approaching 2019.

Although it’s one of my favorite films, I find Blade Runner difficult to watch. It’s got a classic themes (the quest for immortality, what it means to be human), a love story, and is solidly in the film noir genre. Despite sweeping cinematography of futuristic night vistas and the megapolis of LA in 2019, there is also a mood of sepulchral opacity: settings are dark, rainy, crowded, smoky and harsh. Pauline Kael noted “we’re never sure exactly what part of the city we’re in, or where it is in relation to the scene before and the scene after (Scott seems to be trapped in his own alleyways, without a map.)”. The spectacular visuals don’t seem to be bound by an animating force. Completely opposite is a film like Triumph of the Will where the spectacle is in support of an idea, or in that case an ideology. And even though that ideology is odious, from a purely cinematic perspective the brightly-lit, symmetrical scenes are visually appealing and in that sense pleasurable. Whereas when immersed in Ridley Scott’s world, you end up feeling like you are on dark north wall in Game of Thrones, longing for the sunlight of the Dothraki kingdom.

What’s the idea behind this juxtaposition of beautiful structures with roiling ghettos of would-be 2019 Los Angeles? Perhaps it’s a more nuanced take on the idea of the destructive effects of technology. Technology-fueled apocalypse is well-explored territory in film: I am Legend, 28 Days Later, Brazil, Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes, all the way back to Metropolis. Today in the news we hear Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warning us to prepare to bow down in obeisance to our artificial intelligent overlords. In Blade Runner the apocalypse has been partial. There are gleaming palaces and flying cars, but for most it’s dirty, dark, and dusty. Humans have not been exterminated or enslaved, but live as scurrying ramen-eaters and goods-hawkers. In this sense Blade Runner is closer to Bong June-ho’s Snowpiercer than it is to most post-apocalyptic movies.

Given this grubby existence where everyone is looking out for themselves, the love story between Sean Young’s Rachael and Harrison Ford’s Deckerd should gain significance and perhaps be redemptive, but the characters are hampered by the blind loyalty to the close-mouthed film noir style. Not much is said, and not enough is felt.

Despite these flaws, Blade Runner is an immersive, imaginative, well-acted, impeccably cast, patient film. I disagree with Kael’s assertion that Rutger Hauer stops the film every time he appears, and should win the “Klaus Kinski Scenery Chewing Award.” As the doomed prodigal son he deserves some scenery to chew and I found him energizing. Harrison Ford is at his peak but underplays the role, he always seems to have just woken up.

Blade Runner is painterly and demands a suspension of the audience’s desire to cede a portion of their critical responsibility to predictable filmic memes: buddy movie, gang of lovables, guy gets girl, righteous revenge, or what I see a lot of lately: “togetherness overcomes evil” (Guardians of the Galaxy, It). No comedy relief, no wisecracking Bruce Willis-in-Moonlighting character. It’s my favorite movie to see once every 20 years. Let’s see if the sequel leavens the bread.

  1. Good article. The sequel was okay.

  2. Stylistically, the film is claustrophobically stunning. And like in a dream the scenes are fractured and adumbrated; the emotional or intuitive emphasis is focused directly where it should be focused- on the character or the gestalt of the scene. Blade Runner is an emotional film.
    The film is oneiric which makes sense since the subtitle is *Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?*. But is it the dream of a replicant or a human? The film seems to suggest with its dreamy, tortuous motivational interfaces of replicants and humans that there is little difference. The film to me presages the non-binary era and makes one look at identity from structural roots. Both replicants and humans are in the end, human-made and consequently perfectly imperfect mosaics with all the attendant tensions.
    NIce article!

  3. Ah, a comment that sends me to the dictionary, thank you. Yes, *Blade Runner* has a fractured, adumbrated quality, but it also deals in coherent and archetypical themes (prodigal son, death). It’s been suggested that, as stirring as the film is in it’s dreamlike quality, it may be missing a prosaic emotional core. As Pauline Kael points out “Deckard’s mission seems of no particular consequence. Who is he trying to save, the sewer rat people in the city?”

    Perhaps you are saying that the gestalt of scenes is magnified by their “fractalness”, they are free from the prejudices of our tired linear plot assumptions, they throw away the “shorthand” we bring to moviegoing, and we must think (and dream) for ourselves.

    I’m interested by your question of “…is the dream of a replicant or a human?”. The title *Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?* suggests a replicant dreaming of a replicant, however the humans in this film don’t seem to have any dreams at all, they just shuffle in the alleys and serve up the noodles. So personalizing everything as I am wont to do, the question I’m left with is “How am I, as a human, different than a replicant?” – nee “Am I a replicant?”. If my inner life is as fragmented and mosaic-like as the direction and cinematography of *Blade Runner*, then I may be deriving my identity from imperfectly-implanted Tyrellian memories. On the other hand I cannot pull cooked eggs out of boiling water and just last night I dreamt I was a half-dressed aardvark.

  4. With all due respect to Pauline, I’d say there is in fact an emotional quality to Deckard’s striving. He may appear emotionless, and he may indeed be a replicant himself, but his actions limn an arc of emotional exertion- perhaps fuelled by the cheap ramen carbs. Much like an amoeba strains its pseudopodia to move toward something it needs and retracting them from hurt. So in answer to your question “Am I indeed a replicant?” I’d say: biologically and technologically yes, we all are.

    The fractal of the technical recapitulates the fractal of the biological as each are echoed and transmuted within and from without the human being. Beyond that the epigenetically overwritten programs upon our DNA meta-animate us in Tyrellian fashion. The emotions of our makers have influenced who we are.

    So the reason you may not be able to pull cooked eggs out of boiing water may have something to do with a Deckardian-like striving. The arc of intention, emotionally fraught with possible failure, yet striving always to retrieve a perfectly cooked egg, is overwritten perhaps by the experiences of an ancestor who had an egg allergy. However, in the striving, and in the practice, voila-a perfectly pulled out egg.

    So similarly, Deckard may be striving to become a more perfect human, striving to over-come what had been written in his DNA/programming and over-written by his makers and his maker’s DNA/programming. His actions fuelled by emotion and ramen.

    Consequently, I’d agree that that the movie’s fractal/fracture nature invites us suggestively and hypnotically to access that unconscious, semi-conscious, and pre-conscious, continuum by eschewing the linear narrative that dulls and constrains us. In fact all the characters were wholly different from one another, there were no clones. No mass-produced toys, replicants, or humans. From Pris to Rachel, Deckard to Tyrell. All appear and think and dream and act for themselves.

  5. I’m glad to have understood you correctly: that the inchoate nature of the film is a feature not a flaw.

    But if I may speak for the departed Pauline, Deckerd does have an emotional arc, albeit one that is too shallow. If he fails to “retire” the replicants, they self-destruct anyway. If Rachael has a self-termination date, he returns to his Frank Lloyd Wright-esque bachelor pad and pours himself some whiskey in a square glass. He hasn’t sacrificed anything in his quest. We don’t get a sense of what binds Deckerd and Rachael other together. There conversations are terse. He waves his pseudopodia and moves towards the good, but remains an amoeba and doesn’t evolve into a microbe.

    I enjoyed the fractal-like nature of your points that humans are constrained by a (genetic) code, just like replicants, but that via epigenetics that code is not their destiny. Just as the replicants started to develop their own feelings and ambitions, independent of the ones and zeros. Not so different after all.

    I agree that the replicants were not clones in any sense. There was one Pris, not seven. I did see a movie with four Michael Keatons, called *Multiplicity*. That one really did drive me Batty.

  6. Maybe Rachel makes good ramen and chicken soup.

  7. :mrgreen:

    Will read the comments before further comment.

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