It’s always been staggering to think of the sheer quantity of talent, craft, brains and ingenuity in Hollywood. From the beginnings, some seventy years ago, the film colony has had as high a concentration of those qualities as, proportionately, any center on earth. The level of abilities, allowing for one exception, has been Olympian. That exception is, obviously, the core matter, the raison d’être. But, aside from the purpose of it all —the usual level of the films themselves—Hollywood has been almost unremittingly marvelous in technique and in art. The scene and costume design, the photography, the photographic devices and effects, the sound recording and mixing have set a mark for the world.
Blade Runner, though all its achievements are used for a dull and silly film, is crammed with wonderful achievement. It’s set in Los Angeles, 2019. The streets are extremely crowded, with people, vehicles, and mountainous buildings crowding in. The light is always heavy, as if the whole city were under a dome; fierce rain is frequent. The air is thick with floating electric billboards that sail by with gigantic “TV commercials,” most of them featuring smiling Japanese women. Police cars are Hovercraft that land and take off vertically. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, the environment technologically saturated.
My first reaction was that privacy was virtually gone. Privacy has already become, in our time, the most expensive commodity in urban life, and by 2019, the streets are choking; even apartments, except for one tycoon’s residence, are cluttered, as if people feel uneasy with roominess. The Space Age has brought, in personal reaction, an aversion to space.
In older sci-fi films, such as Things to Come (1936), cities of the future were airy and ennobling, with the feeling of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Not in Blade Runner.
It’s all superbly done. The director, Ridley Scott, maker of The Duellists and Alien, is better known for his visual interests than for anything else; here he has outdone himself. No posings, no imitations of paintings, but the creation of a new “fabric.” His chief associates were the industrial designer, Syd Mead, the production designer, Lawrence G. Pauli, the art director, David Snyder, and Douglas Trumbull, the magician of special effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and many other films. The cinematographer was Jordan Croneweth, who has lighted to emphasize intrusion and encroachment: peering searchlights or creeping crepuscular tones that seem to struggle against the dark. That lighting emphasizes the honeycomb surface of many of the walls, so that we sometimes feel trapped inside a gargantuan Louise Nevelson sculpture.
To enjoy Blade Runner, you need only disregard, as far as possible, the actors and dialogue. (And the score. Vangelis, who did the sensationally successful music for Chariots of Fire, here contributes mostly wind and goo.) The script is another reworking of a threat to humans by humanoids —one more variation on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers theme. A blade runner —an unexplained phrase and a clumsy title —is a secret policeman assigned to detect and kill these humanoids. The chief BR here is Harrison Ford, which is confusing because he always strikes me as a humanoid himself. But except for its reason for being, Blade Runner is splendid, a strong argument for the Style is All thesis.
The New Republic, July 19 & 26, 1982