AFI Challenge: Blade Runner

(Okay, so funny story. I actually had the entirety of this post typed out by midday yesterday, but I had no WiFi at the time, so I wrote it on MS Word. I figured I would just post it later on in the day; no big deal right? Well, as it turned out, I got absorbed in some other things and completely forgot to simply paste this from Word and onto WordPress, so that is why this entry is a day late. My bad guys.)

Another week has gone by, so here’s my newest entry into the AFI Challenge (see its About page). With this movie, we have a marked departure in tone and style from the previous entries on the list. Whereas the other films were very story centric, constantly moving from plot-point to plot-point, this one is much more contemplative and atmospheric. It takes its time getting from place to place, and gives you plenty of opportunities to soak in its visual delights. At #97 on the list is Blade Runner.

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In my preparation for watching this movie, I ran into a very unique problem: I didn’t know which version to watch. To those unfamiliar, there was significant controversy surrounding the initial development of Blade Runner. Director Ridley Scott possessed a very clear (and undeniably genius) vision as to what this film ought to be like, and went about filming in whatever way he saw fit. However, in an effort to make this art-house project appeal to fans of Star Wars and other such films, the studio executives forced Scott into to re-shaping the film into more consumer-friendly fare. The end result of this was still a great movie, though everything about it felt just a little bit off. Years later, Scott released Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut, his unaltered, original version of the film; this is the version of the film that I am familiar with, and is almost unanimously considered to the be better movie. So, for the AFI Challenge, which one was I supposed to watch?

Possibly in spite of my better judgement, I chose to view the theatrical release of the movie. As much as I love The Director’s Cut, the American Film Institute’s list displays Blade Runner as having been released in 1982, its original theatrical run. The Director’s Cut was not released until years later, and I decided to stay true to my original intent for the AFI  Challenge; I have to watch the films that are on the list, whether or not I particularly enjoy them. So with that, I began my journey into this neo-noir depiction of Los Angeles and the seedy elements that lay within.

Having seen The Director’s Cut, the first things I noticed were the (oftentimes major) differences between the two cuts of the film. Particularly egregious is the inclusion of voice-0ver narration by Harrison Ford; he sounds bored reading each line of narration, and with the above knowledge its clear that this was hastily added in post-production. There’s some other  quibbles here as well, such as a lack of development in the main romance, and the completely hamfisted addition of a “happy ending” that really does not fit with the rest of the story. It’s a bit disheartening to see how drastically the suits up top can force an artist to sacrifice his artistic vision.

What’s amazing about this movie, however, is that no matter how many surface-level changes were applied at the last minute, the core genius of the film remains intact. Back in 1982, when the gleeful, action-adventure style of Sci-Fi was most popular, it took guts to construct a dark, atmospheric, and methodically paced story where humanity is far from a shining paragon of excellence (the movie’s plot is loosely based of Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). From the opening shot of a dark Los Angeles skyline bursting with flames, you know you’re not watching Star Wars.

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Ridley Scott’s not-exactly-happy vision of the near-future Los Angeles skyline

In the future, humanity relies on humanoid androids (not the phone…) to perform harsh physical labor throughout the solar system. After a violent revolt, these androids, or replicants, are forbidden from stepping foot on Earth; if they disobey this mandate, a specialized police officer known as a “Blade Runner” will hunt them down and “retire” them. I think you can infer what “retirement” actually means in this context. The story follows Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, a retired Blade Runner who is coerced into taking one last job; four replicants have returned to Earth, and its his job to kill them.

What follows is a slow-burn detective thriller sprinkled with impressive detail and multiple levels of intrigue. The film takes its time, and you will undoubtedly check your watch once or twice, but it is simultaneously never anything less than utterly engrossing. Learning about these escaped replicants and their mission is fascinating, as is watching Deckard react to the new information he comes across. He’s killed dozens of these things before, but this time he’s starting to feel it. When it turns out that Sean Young’s character, Rachel, is a replicant, he doesn’t quite understand how to deal with his feelings for her. Ford gives an understated performance that’s filled with nuance; we may love his rogue-ish charm as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, but he is quite capable of stepping outside this type-cast zone and showing off his acting chops.

The supporting cast is equally skilled. Sean Young does great work showing Rachel’s attempt to understand her new place in the world; it’s unfortunate then that her relationship with Deckard comes off as under-developed in this version. The romance aspect of the story is better executed in The Director’s Cut, so I fault neither Ford nor Young for the problems with their relationship. Although some of the replicants receive significantly less screen-time than the others’, each feels like a fully formed (human?) being by the time Deckard catches up to them. The most famous of the these performances is Rutger Hauer’s as the replicant leader Roy Batty, and for good reason. Hauer steals every scene he’s in, morphing himself into an antagonist that is as vicious and fearsome as he is sympathetic. His final speech, after his prolonged chase with Deckard, is some of the best acting/writing that I’ve ever seen in a movie.

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Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty

Also important are the film’s existentialist undertones, which are as evident as they are captivating. What does it mean to be human? Do you even need to be a human-being to deserve equal treatment within society. If Rachel believes herself to be a human and acts accordingly in her everyday life, then why don’t we treat her as such? Must she die simply for who she is? Can Deckard ever truly justify his countless “retirements” if they are no less human than he is? And how does anyone, replicant, human, or otherwise, truly come to reconcile with the inevitability of their own death? This movie brings up a bevy of question, and proceeds to answer very few of them; instead it urges you to consider them for yourself. The film’s excellently moody score, performed by Vangelis, serves to accentuate the pondering of these philosophical questions. This is the type of movie with the potential to change the way you view the world around you, or at the very least make you question long-held assumptions about the  nature of human life. The fact that it’s accomplished with such skill is all the more impressive.

In the end, Director’s Cut or not, Blade Runner is a landmark accomplishment in the realm of cinema. While I may have had my problems with the alterations mandated by the production company, the essence of the film shines just as brightly as ever. It’s pitch-black, contemplative, and visually stunning, featuring a wide variety of terrific performances. I simply cannot recommend it enough, and personally consider it to be one of my favorite movies of all time.

I give Blade Runner a rating of . . . .

Classic

It without a doubt earns its spot on the list.

Yet another movie earns the Classic rating, and from looking at the next couple films on the list, I’m not sure when this trend is going to stop. I hope my ratings aren’t getting too dull!

So have you seen Blade Runner? If so, what do you think of it? Do you think it earns its spot as #97 on the AFI list of Top 100 Greatest American Films? Be sure to respond to the poll, and then let me know your thoughts below. See you around next week for my review of #96 on the list, Do The Right Thing.

Blade Runner Info
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples
Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, and Edward James Olmos
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: June 25, 1982
Production Company: Warner Bros.