Blade Runner revisited

I was 19 when I first saw Blade Runner. That year, 1982, was also the year of ET, Poltergeist, The Thing, Tron, Star Trek II, and a lot of other decent, but non-genre movies. This was the era of Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Starman, films that followed the successes of Alien and Close Encounters in the 70s, not to mention that other thing.

The original theatrical release was the one with the voiceover and happy ending and without the unicorn sequence. At the time, I didn’t think it was a bad thing. This was Ridley Scott’s follow-up to Alien; this one director had already made two of the best science fiction films of all time. But Blade Runner was a flop, right? Not to me, at least.

I was at university in Nottingham 10 years later, when the Director’s Cut was released. We were all excited to see the legendary (but not from Legend!) unicorn sequence, and to see the film without the voice over telling us what to think. The rumour that the sequence came from Legend relates to the way in which the waking dream doesn’t look like the rest of the film, I think. The lighting is different, the colour palette is different. But back then, I tended to receive the film in terms of its narrative plot, and, like everyone, I was fascinated by the question of Deckard’s status.

Now that I’ve watched the film (including the Final Cut) so many times because of teaching; now that I’ve paused and discussed it and dissected it, shot by shot; I see it almost entirely in terms of its visuals. I still find the question of Deckard’s status somewhat interesting (Deckard is Gaff), but I now see more visual clues than narrative clues, if you know what I mean. For example, the film is thoroughly obsessed with eyes, from its opening sequence through to the end. The eyes are the windows to the soul, and the artificial people and animals in the film all have red eyes (because they have no souls).

As to the unicorn, its painterly qualities actually match the painterly qualities of the rest of the movie. The scene when Deckard explores the Bradbury apartment while Pris hides under a veil looks like a Renoir or a Manet painting, the street scenes look like Hopper, and the production design is all Moebius.

I watched the new BFI print of The Final Cut at the new Odeon cinema in Milton Keynes yesterday. There was a queue at the entrance to screens 1-6 and we joined the back of it without asking whether it was the right queue. Of course it was the right queue. I said to my daughter, ‘Just look at the age demographic and the preponderance of spectacles.’ I could have added that it was a mostly male crowd, but I didn’t do a headcount. But this was definitely a group of people who had all seen the film before. Perhaps this will be the last time I see it on a big screen? Who knows. I watched with mixed feelings. I know the film inside out.

The big screen revealed some odd focusing issues in some scenes. At first I was willing to blame the projector, but it was clear in other, sharper shots, that the projector was fine. No, there are so many big close-ups in the film of actors who are in motion that the focus wobbles at times. I think if Ridley Scott had had more time and more budget he would have reshot these.

There are lots of uncomfortable scenes. The violent confrontation at the end is painful to watch. That’s the power of cinema, that transference of empathy from the screen to the audience through the anchor character to whom we relate. But one scene that stands out as discomfiting to modern sensibilities is the one where Deckard more or less forces himself on Rachael as she tries to leave his apartment. The scene plays out with her pinned by him against a wall and repeating what he tells her to say (‘Kiss me’). But then there’s a moment where she volunteers: ‘Put your hands on me,’ she says. So it’s all right, is it?

Rachael has just discovered that she is a replicant. She has feelings for Deckard. She doesn’t trust these feelings, because they might not be her own. That’s the source of her reluctance. What’s the source of Deckard’s forcefulness? Does he want her to understand that feelings are real even if memories are false? Or does he think that it can’t be rape if it’s a replicant? The whole thrust of his job is that replicants don’t have human rights.

One major problem with the idea of Deckard as a replicant is that he not only feels pain, but appears to be weaker than the others. He can’t jump across rooftops like Roy Batty. He gets beaten up a lot by all four of the escaped replicants. The only one he appears to be able to best physically is Rachael, whom he is able to force against the wall quite easily.

‘You did a man’s job,’ says Gaff at the end. As I pointed out to my daughter, Gaff doesn’t say, ‘You did a man’s job,’ he says the line without emphasis, as if saying, ‘You did some other guy’s job,’ which is to say, ‘You did my job.’ I think both of Edward James Olmos’ last lines might be fluffed. I reckon it’s possible that the shortness of time and the budget overruns meant that they simply couldn’t do multiple takes and had to live with these badly spoken lines. ‘Too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?’ is said with a fade on the last couple of words that robs them of emphasis and conviction.

Mistake? Or genius?

The film is visually stunning, and has an incredible soundtrack, an electronic version of a 1940s film noir score. For those reasons alone, it’s a must-see at the cinema. It’s also a thoughtful film as it explores the humanity of its non-human characters. When Batty rescues Deckard at the end, he shows that he values life, and displays a human empathy that seems to be lacking in the human characters. You’ve already seen it, but see it again.

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2 thoughts on “Blade Runner revisited”

  1. Not sure whether you will have seen Dangerous Days? It is the extensive documentary about the making of Bladerunner. (3h+ duration)

    Worth a viewing, it talks about the challenges of the production in quite a lot of detail with plenty of cast and crew interviews as well as containing numerous off-cuts from the movie.

  2. Yes, indeed, have seen it, and more than once. Used to watch it with my students when Blade Runner was a set text. The last great film made with in-camera effects.

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