Blade Runner (1982) | Review by Pauline Kael

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.
Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner

Baby, the Rain Must Fall

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.

Joanna Cassidy in Blade Runner

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.

Sean Young (Rachael) in Blade Runner

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.

SOURCE: The New Yorker, July 12, 1982

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20 thoughts on “Blade Runner (1982) | Review by Pauline Kael”

  1. I was only aware of this review by this snobby condescending critic from an interview with Ridley Scott. She picks apart EVERYTHING. She clearly didn’t get it at all and gave the impression of a personal attack on Ridley. This went way beyond critique but mockery of Ridley’s vision and work process. Her opinion is of very little worth and the joke is on her when you see the lasting influence it had on films to follow and has been preserved in the Library of Congress.

    1. Actually, the joke is on you. Kael’s influence on film criticism casts as long a shadow as Blade Runner does on sci-fi, and the fact that you are unaware of her imprint or even apparently who she was is indicative of your ignorance. Trust, do you think Ridley Scott would be repeating and answering back if it were some Rotten Tomatoes schmuck? Her “opinions” were informed by a life led in vanguard of American bohemianism and she is generally credited with having re-invented film criticism during the 50s and 60s.

      What you find snobby and condescending is really your own reflection of ignorance recognized in passing on the mirror she holds up to the film. Pretty, but not much going on underneath. Amazing that her words are still so insightful, decades later.

      1. kid maliksi

        I agree with yo Jed. I even think she was the best film critic ever. I never liked the original Bladerunner and for all the reasons she stated but I could not express them as well as her. I hate it when people argue against people they disagree with instead of respecting somebody else’s critique. As far as I am concerned, she was spot-on about the shortcomings of Bladerunner. The original has only been hyped now because people’s standards for great films have been diminished by tentpole, formulaic movies and the studios are pushing Bladerunner 2049.

        1. kid maliksi

          To add, if it were not for Pauline Kael, I would not have a deeper appreciation of movies. She made me realize how important critical thinking is in — in movies and in life.

  2. Kael also disliked2001: A Space Odyssey. She did not have a good record recognizing good science fiction films.

  3. Reading this, 35 years after it was written, and with Blade Runners place in film history firmly restored, I can only feel sorry for Kael’s superficial and mean spirited commentary. Romans used to say “scripta manent” and this is particularly true for film critics; if you are not careful (or objective) you risk being the butt of the joke a few years down the line.

  4. FrenchReader01

    It is important to note that Kael wrote this critic after she saw the first version of the movie, which was wasted by an omnipresent voiceover and a happy ending showing Deckard / Rachel driving through a luminous and colorful countryside. I do believe her perception would have been quite different with the Director’s cut or the Final Cut, in which the substance of the movie is not supplanted by the aesthetic (which i understand is the main issue for Kael).

    Despite i fully disagree with her views on this particular movie (and so many more), I think she is a brilliant critic in so far as she does it in a very detailed and sincerely argued way.

  5. When I watch a film, whether or not I am going to agree or disagree with a critic depends on what the criticism is and what if anything they place value in when it comes to the genre, the subject matter and even more so, how it relates to real things, like their life, or the life of the viewers watching such films. I believe that Kael has missed the point when it comes to films such as this and is not looking at this movie rationally or realistically in how it relates to our world or in this case, her Bohemian world. Many of us lack a certain sense of empathy when it comes to dealing with people who do not hold our person view point in the world around us, nor are they necessarily able to see the big picture for our world or any other for that matter unless it relates to their bubble.
    “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.” is very much the sentence that has me dismissing most of what she has to say because it is in itself a bullshit statement. Relate this phrase to a human being (or K a replicant) in his world, “How did we get here?” how did we not get here? And Why question it? Do we constantly question how we got here in every aspect of our lives? No, because for the most part we already know the answer. We got us here. Why did Trump get elected? How did we let that happen? Because someone wanted it. How did we trash the world? Because we are actually apathetic in reality, maybe verbally, or in our own thoughts, we go, “Oh, How terrible” but what do we do? Actions speak louder than words and we have done nothing to stop it, we have, in the name of profit pushed it to where we are now, do we have space travel? Barely. Is the world a better place? Ask the homeless and hungry. Ask the rioters and the people in prison. Ask the drug addicted. Ask the rebels. Are there people actually doing something to stop it? Ask the person working at a job that they hate. Why hate a job and still do it? Choice?
    What this article says to me is that Kael has missed the point to not only the Director’s vision, but the reasoning behind the story, the actions of the characters, the seeming flaws in the logic of the actions. Because since when is life logical? Since when do we go oh, A+B=C? Because D+F-A….. They misunderstand and misinterpret the reasoning for the actions of each character. Why do they not have armed guards at Tyrell’s? because he doesn’t want them to, is Deckard doing Tyrell’s dirty work? No, he is enforcing a law. Obviously, Kael wasn’t paying attention, what is Rachel’s question to Deckard when they meet, about Tyrell’s corporation’s work? Maybe Tyrell wants his replicants to visit him…. so many things I could touch on, but I believe most of my words will fall on def ears. I am merely expressing my disapproval for Kael’s ideas and I find it ironically not as intelligent or thought out as Kael’s reputation says otherwise.

  6. She did absolutely nail that it’s a ‘style over content’ film, with all the problems that brings.

    She wasn’t so good at noticing that the style – as you would expect from someone who’d made thousands of ads – would be so memorable.

  7. Alan Savage

    ‘Bladerunner’ is a perfect film to me. Everything about it, including the way it’s lit and the music, all add up to the influential classic that it is. Critics write about films. They don’t make them. Big difference.I found this review mean and nasty. Maybe she had personal issues. It certainly seems to me there is a lot of unnecessary bile and vitriol in the tone of her writing. I don’t care if she is or was a respected film critic. She’s wrong.

  8. Tommy Twotone

    Haters gonna hate. I’m talking about all the Kael critics in this thread, and not her. It’s nice that you love the movie, as well as every other “great” movie that everyone has told you is “great.”

    People like her have to come up with an original opinion, while you get to wait 30 years, see what everyone else thinks, and then copy that opinion. And then if someone else’s opinion differs, you get to act all high and mighty because your fake, popular opinion is different than someone else’s real opinion that happens to be unpopular.

  9. It’s the viciousness of her critique which weakens her argument. Far to often Kael let her own personal morality infect her reviews.

  10. Kael often held back and waited to see which way the wind was blowing with other critics and then she would pounce with an opposing position. She was quite aware of her position, that she was writing for the New Yorker. If she didn’t write a controversial review that kept people reading and talking about it, they’d damn well find someone who would. Her attack on Ridley Scott and his film was unwarranted, but it helped her own cause celebre. She argues her position well enough, true, but she argued her defense and appreciation of ‘Last Tango in Paris ‘ in much the same way – voluminous words and myriad of references all strung together to basically support a contrary stance. Best way I can say it is this: I think she was a fraud who just happened to really have the goods.

  11. Edwin Jed Fish Gould III

    Sad review. Writers will notice she did a poor job editing her own piece. Followed her mood down a harsh path three different times. She would write something cruel, then try to eek out some politeness, get disgusted with herself and walk away, returning two more times to usher in the vitriol. And why so long? It’s three oily reviews smashed together.

  12. Foolkiller Phil

    Okay, Pauline was original and acute, but incredibly wrong about a great movie (e.g. she dismissed the amazing Rutger Hauer as ythe lead replicant because he acts like one!) I am rewatching the directors cut and it is a masterpiece, even with the stilted dialog. What baffles me is how bad Ridley Scott has become with that awful version of Napoleon….

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