by Pauline Kael
Ridley Scott, the director of the futuristic thriller Blade Runner, sets up the action with a crawl announcing that the time is early in the twenty-first century, and that a blade runner is a police officer who “retires’’—i.e., kills—”replicants,” the powerful humanoids manufactured by genetic engineers, if they rebel against their drudgery in the space colonies and show up on Earth. A title informs us that we’re in Los Angeles in the year 2019, and then Scott plunges us into a hellish, claustrophobic city that has become a cross between Newark and old Singapore. The skies are polluted, and there’s a continual drenching rainfall. The air is so rotten that it’s dark outside, yet when we’re inside, the brightest lights are on the outside, from the giant searchlights scanning the city and shining in. A huge, squat pyramidal skyscraper (the new architecture appears to be Mayan and Egyptian in inspiration) houses the offices of the Tyrell Corporation, which produces those marvels of energy the replicants, who are faster and stronger than human beings, and even at the top, in the penthouse of Tyrell himself, there’s dust hanging in the smoky air. (You may find yourself idly wondering why this bigwig inventor can’t produce a humble little replicant to do some dusting.)
The congested-megalopolis sets are extraordinary, and they’re lovingly, perhaps obsessively, detailed; this is the future as a black market, made up of scrambled sordid aspects of the past—Chinatown, the Casbah, and Times Square, with an enormous, mesmerizing ad for Coca-Cola, and Art Deco neon signs everywhere, in a blur of languages. Blade Runner, which cost thirty million dollars, has its own look, and a visionary sci-fi movie that has its own look can’t be ignored—it has its place in film history. But we’re always aware of the sets as sets, partly because although the impasto of decay is fascinating, what we see doesn’t mean anything to us. (It’s 2019 back lot.) Ridley Scott isn’t great on mise en scène—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.) And we’re not caught up in the pulpy suspense plot, which involves the hero, Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former blade runner forced to come back to hunt down four murderous replicants who have blended into the swarming street life. (The term “blade runner” actually comes from the title of a William Burroughs novel, which has no connection with the movie.) It’s a very strange tenderloin that Ridley Scott and his associates have concocted: except for Deckard and stray Hari Krishna-ites and porcupine headed punks, there are few Caucasians (and not many blacks, either). The population seems to be almost entirely ethnic—poor, hustling Asians and assorted foreigners, who are made to seem not quite degenerate, perhaps, but oddly subhuman. They’re all selling, dealing, struggling to get along; they never look up— they’re intent on what they’re involved in, like slot machine zealots in Vegas. You know that Deckard is a breed apart, because he’s the only one you see who reads a newspaper. Nothing much is explained (except in that opening crawl), but we get the vague impression that the more prosperous, clean cut types have gone off world to some Scarsdale in space.
Here we are—only forty years from now—in a horrible electronic slum, and Blade Runner never asks, “How did this happen?” The picture treats this grimy, retrograde future as a given—a foregone conclusion, which we’re not meant to question. The presumption is that man is now fully realized as a spoiler of the earth. The sci-fi movies of the past were often utopian or cautionary; this film seems indifferent, blasé, and maybe, like some of the people in the audience, a little pleased by this view of a medieval future—satisfied in a slightly vengeful way. There’s a subject, though, lurking around the comic strip edges: What does it mean to be human? Tracking down the replicants, who are assumed not to have any feelings, Deckard finds not only that they suffer and passionately want to live but that they are capable of acts of generosity. They have become far more human than the scavenging people left on Earth. Maybe Scott and the scriptwriters (Hampton Fancher and David Peoples), who adapted the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by the late Philip K. Dick, shied away from this subject because it has sticky, neo-Fascist aspects. But this underlying idea is the only promising one in the movie, and it has a strong visual base: when a manufactured person looks just like a person born of woman—when even the eyes don’t tell you which is which—how do you define the difference?
Scott’s creepy, oppressive vision requires some sort of overriding idea-something besides spoofy gimmicks, such as having Deckard narrate the movie in the loner-in-the-big-city manner of a Hammett or Chandler private eye. This voice over, which is said to have been a late addition, sounds ludicrous, and it breaks the visual hold of the material. The dialogue isn’t well handled, either. Scott doesn’t seem to have a grasp of how to use words as part of the way a movie moves. Blade Runner is a suspenseless thriller; it appears to be a victim of its own imaginative use of hardware and miniatures and mattes. At some point, Scott and the others must have decided that the story was unimportant; maybe the booming, lewd and sultry score by Chariots-for-Hire Vangelis that seems to come out of the smoke convinced them that the audience would be moved even if vital parts of the story were trimmed. Vangelis gives the picture so much film noir overload that he fights Scott’s imagery; he chomps on it, stomps on it, and drowns it.
Blade Runner doesn’t engage you directly; it forces passivity on you. It sets you down in this lopsided maze of a city, with its post human feeling, and keeps you persuaded that something bad is about to happen. Some of the scenes seem to have six subtexts but no text, and no context either. There are suggestions of Nicolas Roeg in the odd, premonitory atmosphere, but Roeg gives promise of something perversely sexual. With Scott, it’s just something unpleasant or ugly. The dizzying architectural angles (we always seem to be looking down from perilous heights) and the buglike police cars that lift off in the street and rise straight up in the canyons between the tall buildings and drop down again give us a teasing kind of vertigo. Scott goes much further, though. He uses way-off-kilter angles that produce not nausea, exactly, but a queasiness that prepares us for the feelings of nausea that Deckard is then seen to have. And, perhaps because of the what-is-a-human-being remnant in the story, the picture keeps Deckard—and us—fixated on eyes. (The characters’ perambulations include a visit to the eye maker who supplies the Tyrrell genetic engineers with human eyes, and he turns out to be a wizened old Chinese gent—as if eyemaking were an ancient art. Maybe Tyrell picks up some used elbows in Saigon. His methods of operation for creating replicant slaves out of living cell tissue seem as haphazard as bodywork on wrecked cars.) In Nicolas Roeg’s films, the characters are drained, and they’re left soft and androgynous in an inviting way; Scott squashes his characters, and the dread that he sets up leads you to expect some release, and you know it’s not the release you want.
All we’ve got to hang on to is Deckard, and the moviemakers seem to have decided that his characterization was complete when they signed Harrison Ford for the role. Deckard’s bachelor pad is part of a 1924 Frank Lloyd Wright house with a Mayan motif. Apart from that, the only things we learn about him are that he has inexplicably latched on to private-eye lingo, that he was married, and that he’s tired of killing replicants—it has begun to sicken him. (The piano in his apartment has dozens of family pictures on it, but they’re curiously old-fashioned photos—they seem to go back to the nineteenth century —and we have no idea what happened to all those people.) The film’s visual scale makes the sloppy bit of plot about Deckard going from one oddball place to another as he tracks down the four replicants—two men, two women—seem sort of pitiable But his encounters with the replicant women are sensationally, violently effective. As Zhora, who has found employment as an artificial snake charmer, Joanna Cassidy has some of the fine torrid sluttiness she had in The Late Show. (Nobody is less like a humanoid than Joanna Cassidy; her Zhora wasn’t manufactured as an adult—she was formed by bitter experience, and that’s what gives her a screen presence.) And, in the one really shocking and magical sequence, Daryl Hannah, as the straw haired, acrobatic Pris, does a punk variation on Olympia, the doll automaton of The Tales of Hoffmann.
The two male replicants give the movie problems. Leon (Brian James, who brings a sweaty wariness and suggestions of depth to the role) has found a factory job at the Tyrell Corporation itself, and his new employers, suspecting that he may be a renegade replicant, give him a highly sophisticated test. It checks his emotional responses by detecting the contractions of the pupils of his eyes as he attempts to deal with questions about his early life. But this replicant-detector test comes at the beginning of the picture, before we have registered that replicants have no early life. And it seems utterly pointless, since surely the Tyrell Corporation has photographic records of the models it has produced and, in fact, when the police order Deckard to find and retire the four he is shown perfectly clear pictures of them. It might have been much cannier to save any testing until later in the movie, when Deckard has doubts about a very beautiful dark eyed woman—Tyrell’s assistant, Rachael, played by Sean Young. Rachael, who has the eyes of an old Murine ad, seems more of a zombie than anyone else in the movie, because the director tries to pose her the way von Sternberg posed Dietrich, but she saves Deckard’s life, and even plays his piano. (She smokes, too, but then the whole atmosphere is smoking.) Rachael wears vamped-up versions of the mannish padded shoulder suits and the sleek, stiff hairdos and ultra-glossy lipstick of career girls in forties movies; her shoulder comes into a room a long time before she does. And if Deckard had felt compelled to test her responses it could have been the occasion for some nifty repartee; she might have been spirited and touching. Her role is limply written, though; she’s cool at first, but she spends most of her screen time looking mysteriously afflicted—wet-eyed with yearning—and she never gets to deliver a zinger. I don’t think she even has a chance to laugh. The moviemakers haven’t learned that wonderful, simple trick of bringing a character close to the audience by giving him a joke or having him overreact to one. The people we’re watching are so remote from us they might be shadows of people who aren’t there.
The only character who gets to display a large range of emotions is the fourth of the killer replicants, and their leader—Roy Batty (the Crazed King?), played by the tall, blue-eyed blond Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, whose hair is lemon-white here. Hauer (who was Albert Speer in Inside the Third Reich on television last May) stares all the time; he also smiles ominously, hoo-hoos like a mad owl and howls like a wolf, and, at moments, appears to see himself as the god Pan, and as Christ crucified. He seems a shoo-in for this year’s Klaus Kinski Scenery-Chewing Award. As a humanoid in a homicidal rage because replicants are built to last only four years, he stalks through the movie like an evil Aryan superman; he brings the wrong kind of intensity to the role—an effete, self-aware irony so overscaled it’s Wagnerian. His gaga performance is an unconscious burlesque that apparently passes for great acting with the director, especially when Hauer turns noble sufferer and poses like a big hunk of sculpture. (It’s a wonder he doesn’t rust out in all that rain.) This sequence is particularly funny because there’s poor Harrison Ford, with the fingers of one hand broken, reduced to hanging on to bits of the cornice of a tall building by his one good hand—by then you’ve probably forgotten that he is Harrison Ford, the fellow who charms audiences by his boundless good humor—while the saucer-eyed Hauer rants and carries on. Ford is like Harold Lloyd stuck by mistake in the climax of Duel in the Sun.
Ridley Scott may not notice that when Hauer is onscreen the camera seems stalled and time breaks down, because the whole movie gives you a feeling of not getting anywhere. Deckard’s mission seems of no particular consequence. Whom is he trying to save? Those sewer-rat people in the city? They’re presented as so dehumanized that their life or death hardly matters. Deckard feels no more connection with them than Ridley Scott does. They’re just part of the film’s bluish-gray, heavy-metal chic—inertia made glamorous. Lead zeppelins could float in this smoggy air. And maybe in the moviemakers’ heads, too. Why is Deckard engaged in this urgent hunt? The replicants are due to expire anyway. All the moviemakers’ thinking must have gone into the sets. Apparently, the replicants have a motive for returning to Earth: they’re trying to reach Tyrell—they hope he can extend their life span. So if the police want to catch them, all they need to do is wait for them to show up at Tyrrell’s place. And why hasn’t Deckard, the ace blade runner, figured out that if the replicants can’t have their lives extended they may want revenge for their slave existence, and that all he’s doing is protecting Tyrell? You can dope out how the story might have been presented, with Deckard as the patsy who does Tyrell’s dirty work; as it is, you can’t clear up why Tyrell isn’t better guarded—and why the movie doesn’t pull the plot strands together.
Blade Runner is musty even while you’re looking at it (and noting its relationship to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and to von Sternberg’s lighting techniques, and maybe to Polanski‘s Chinatown and Fellini‘s Roma, and so on). There are some remarkable images—for example, when the camera plays over the iron grillwork of the famous Bradbury Building in Los Angeles the iron looks tortured into shape. These images are part of the sequences about a lonely, sickly young toy-maker, Sebastian (William Sanderson), who lives in the deserted building. Sebastian has used the same techniques employed in producing replicants to make living toy companions for himself, and since the first appearance of these toys has some charm, we wait to see them in action again. When the innocent, friendly Sebastian is in danger, we expect the toys to come to his aid or be upset or, later, try to take reprisals for what happens to their creator, or at least grieve. We assume that moviemakers wouldn’t go to all the trouble of devising a whole batch of toy figures only to forget about them. But this movie loses track of the few expectations it sets up, and the formlessness adds to a viewer’s demoralization—the film itself seems part of the atmosphere of decay Blade Runner has nothing to give the audience—not even a second of sorrow for Sebastian. It hasn’t been thought out in human terms. If anybody comes around with a test to detect humanoids, maybe Ridley Scott and his associates should hide. With all the smoke in this movie, you feel as if everyone connected with it needs to have his flue cleaned.
The New Yorker, July 12, 1982; p. 82
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