by Janet Maslin
The view of the future offered by Ridley Scott‘s muddled yet mesmerizing Blade Runner is as intricately detailed as anything a science-fiction film has yet envisioned. The year is 2019, the place Los Angeles, the landscape garish but bleak. The city is a canyon bounded by industrial towers, some of which belch fire. Advertising billboards, which are everywhere, now feature lifelike electronic people who are the size of giants. The police cruise both horizontally and vertically on their patrol routes, but there is seldom anyone to arrest, because the place is much emptier than it used to be. In an age of space travel, anyone with the wherewithal has presumably gone away. Only the dregs remain.
Blade Runner begins with a stunning shot of this futuristic city, accompanied by the rumbling of Vangelis’s eerie, highly effective score. It proceeds to tell the story of Rick Deckard and his battle with the replicants, a story based on Philip K. Dick‘s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In brief: replicants are manmade creatures that possess all human attributes except feelings. They have been built to serve as slaves in Earth colonies that are Off World, i.e., elsewhere. Whenever the replicants rebel, the job of eliminating them is given to a special, skilled hunter. This expert is called a blade runner.
Rick Deckard is the best of the blade runners, now retired. He is as hard-boiled as any film noir detective, with much the same world view. So when he is told, at the beginning of Blade Runner, that an especially dangerous group of replicants is on the loose, and is offered the job of hunting them, he can’t say no. Even in the murkiest reaches of science-fiction lore, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Blade Runner, which opens today at the Criterion Center and other theaters, follows Deckard’s love affair with a beautiful replicant named Rachael, who is special assistant to the high-level industrialist who created her. It also follows Deckard’s tracking down of the runaways, most notably their white-haired, demoniclooking leader, Batty (Rutger Hauer). These events involve quite a bit of plot, but they’re nothing in the movie’s excessively busy overall scheme. Blade Runner is crammed to the gills with much more information than it can hold.
Science-fiction devotees may find Blade Runner a wonderfully meticulous movie and marvel at the comprehensiveness of its vision. Even those without a taste for gadgetry cannot fail to appreciate the degree of effort that has gone into constructing a film so ambitious and idiosyncratic. The special effects are by Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich and David Dryer, and they are superb. So is Laurence G. Paull’s production design. But Blade Runner is a film that special effects could have easily run away with, and run away with it they have.
And it’s also a mess, at least as far as its narrative is concerned. Almost nothing is explained coherently, and the plot has great lapses, from the changeable nature of one key character to the frequent disappearances of another. The story lurches along awkwardly, helped not at all by some ponderous stabs at developing Deckard’s character. As an old-fashioned detective cruising his way through the space age, Deckard is both tedious and outre.
At several points in the story, Deckard is called on to wonder whether Rachael has feelings. This seems peculiar, because the icy, poised Rachael, played by Sean Young as a 1940’s heroine with spaceage trimmings, seems a lot more expressive than Deckard, who is played by Harrison Ford. Mr. Ford is, for a movie so darkly fanciful, rather a colorless hero; he fades too easily into the bleak background. And he is often upstaged by Rutger Hauer, who in this film and in Night Hawks appears to be specializing in fiendish roles. Mr. Hauer is properly cold-blooded here, but there is something almost humorous behind his nastiness. In any case, he is by far the most animated performer in a film intentionally populated by automatons.
Mr. Scott, who made his mark in Alien by showing a creature bursting forth from the body of one of its victims, tries hard to hit the same note here. One scene takes place in an eyeball factory. Two others show Deckard in vicious, sadistic fights with women. One of these fights features strange calisthenics and unearthly shrieks.
The end of the film is both gruesome and sentimental. Mr. Scott can’t have it both ways, any more than he can expect overdecoration to carry a film that has neither strong characters nor a strong story. That hasn’t stopped him from trying, even if it perhaps should have.
Published: The New York Times, June 25, 1982