Blade Runner: Great Then, Great Now
1982, directed by Ridley Scott
Even successful movies revel in their time, and then pass, dated and limping, into artistic somnolence and decrepitude, and so to their unlamented and unmourned end. Only a very few movies, such as Casa Blanca or Citizen Kane, not only resist aging, but actually blossom with age, becoming far more than they originally were.
Blade Runner is one such film. Based on the scifi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, and released to a mixed critical reception, the film was originally financially successful but not a smash by any means. Almost immediately, however, it achieved cult classic status, and today appears on many of the “best 100 films” lists; indeed, it is considered by some to be the best science fiction film ever made. Why?
First, it is a beautiful film. Oh, it’s noir, all right . . . taking place in that fabled dark and brooding Los Angeles of celluloid, where it rains all the time and, amazingly enough, never seems to be daylight. Not for nothing do wags ask whether Los Angeles is a film that thinks it’s a city, or whether it’s a city that thinks it’s a film. But the noir is so stylized, so elegantly displayed, so atmospheric, that just watching it without sound is a sensory pleasure. And the music is extraordinary: not the cacophonous yet anodyne din and hammer of modern action films, but dreamy, understated and spare: Japanese at times, sparse jazz and drums at times. Standing alone without any further intellectual depth, the film as a whole is a magnificent work of art.
It is not surprisingly, then, that much of the aesthetic of Blade Runner shows up in subsequent science fiction classics such as the anime Ghost in the Shell – and that elements of Blade Runner themselves reach back to classics such as Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. Indeed, the victory roll hairstyle of the female lead, Rachael, is pure femme fatale classic 1940’s homage, as are many of her outfits. It is incredibly hard to shoot such a stylized film and not have it become rapidly dated, especially one that, like all science fiction films, depends on technology for at least part of its impact, but that’s what we have here (compare, for example, 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which, although an excellent film, has a pace and aesthetic which cannot help but feel dated).
For the techno-critic, however, another facet of the beauty of the film is the way it raises archetypal questions of technological civilization. Most obviously, the conflict between bio-engineered super human slaves known as “replicants” and ordinary humans – the blade runner’s job is to track down and kill replicants that escape to Earth – reprises the Frankenstein myth: the technological creation versus the biological human. And the replicants do seem sometimes to act as monsters – as do the humans that are tracking them down and killing them, a point made obvious by numerous allusions to Frankensteinian aesthetic, especially in the confrontation between the replicant Roy and his designer, Tyrell. Blade Runner does not simply repeat the Frankenstein story, however, but gives it an ambiguity, and a depth, that the original story, and the technophobic social scientists that keep repeating it, never achieve. Especially because the film leaves unresolved questions about the replicant status of the alleged humans, most especially Harrison Ford as the blade runner, it advances questions and considerations rather than simplistic resolutions. Is anyone really human anyway? You decide.
And in doing so, the second archetypal question arises: what is human? Why isn’t a replicant – essentially an enhanced human – a “human”? Is it your actions, or your face, or where you came from (womb or factory), or your emotions and empathy, that make you “human”? And who gets to decide? And what happens when past verities that underlie such a definition fail? These questions, in a blossoming age of human enhancement and lifespan modification, are even more relevant today than they were in 1982. And again, the film does not answer. This is a film that does not assume a stupid audience.
Recommendation: What are you waiting for?