Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Blade Runner (1981) - Directed by Ridley Scott

A lot has changed in the last 30 years, not the least of which is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which has seen multiple versions both released in theatres and on home video/DVD distribution. Upon its release in a sneak preview in 1981, the film was deemed too confusing, and thus Scott and star Harrison Ford were forced to input a rather awful voice over for the mainstream American release, a film which I really didn't like very much. There was a more violent International cut, followed by a “Directors Cut” in 1992, which Scott never approved. At least it removed that voice-over though! What was always apparent to me in all of the versions I had seen until recently (watched on TV, Pan-and-Scan VHS, or even that Director’s Cut DVD), including the U.S. release and the Director’s Cut, was a muddled visual aesthetic, as if the film was artificially darkened beyond comprehension. I’m not sure if it was the newer remastered “Final Cut” on Blu-Ray, my new TV, or a combination of the two, but to me, Scott’s film has never looked better than it does now, justifying and enhancing its high status as one of the watershed cinematic experiences of the last thirty years.

Scott’s film, based on Philip K. Dick’s short story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, is a sci-fi neo-noir of epic proportions that has been highly influential to multiple sci-fi, neo-noir, and anime films that have followed. It concerns the story of Deckard (Harrison Ford) who is a “Blade Runner”, a hit man of sorts charged with hunting down and killing “Replicants”, which are androids that are nearly identical to actual humans who are used as slave labor in space exploration. Specifically, Blade Runner follows Deckard as he tracks a group of Replicants who have gone rogue on earth after killing some humans. Replicants look like humans from the outside and can even have emotions and learned behavior that they put together to create the semblance of a fully functional human being. We learn that they are rather desperate though, as they are only given a 4-year life span and will do anything to try to find a way to extend their lives. Deckard soon finds out that the task of “playing God” is a troubling endeavor.

Blade Runner has an aura about the way that it conveys its story, which is something out of pulp magazines, graphic novels or comic books combined with traditional film noir. All of it looks familiar, and yet it feels completely fresh and vital still today. Much of the credit to the film's success should be given to production designer Lawrence Paull, art director David Snyder and the multiple effects artists who drop us so mercilessly into a piteous Los Angeles, circa 2019, filled with towering, monolithic buildings, smog and pollution, continuous rain and darkened skies. In particular, the lighting of the film is monumental, standing up against something like The Third Man (1949), for perhaps greatest use of light and darkness of any film in history. Observe the way that light peers through window blinds, enlightening faces with chiaroscuro palettes. Or look at the use of neon lights, reflective surfaces, and smoke to create romance and tension. This film simply looks spectacular.

Rivaling the lighting, are the faces of the actors. This film is actually a continuous barrage of fascinating faces: Harrison Ford’s downtrodden and hard-boiled Deckard; Rutger Hauer’s Nordic aloofness complete with screaming, white hair; Sean Young’s angelic face, filled with tears and smeared mascara; Daryl Hannah’s mannequin-like perfection turned into a harlequin with white and black paint; Edward James Olmos’s pockmarked wise man. Considering the heavy doses of atmosphere, though, the film retains a dose of emotion. The Replicants’ drive to stay alive and become more human is almost fairy-tale in its quality. They are fully sympathetic antagonists, and this coupled with the gory violence strikes the viewer with a sadness and remorse. Thus, the film can play as highly emotive film noir, not just a stylistic exercise or a superficially cool film, something I have begun to call emo-noir, which is a term I used to describe Drive (2011). Although I don’t consider Scott to be an auteur in the strict sense, he has made a few remarkable films, Blade Runner being his best.


Sam Juliano said...

Jon, you do a beautiful job framing this science-fiction classic, one that I will forever have fond memories for. When the film opened several years ago for it's new HD print, Allan Fish was with us for three weeks from the U.K. He attended the film, and marveled at it's visual magnificence, even if he knew from previous viewings that the film was a feast from the eyes. You speak knowingly here about the film's influence, the remarkable lighting and incomparable atmospherics. I do like the 'emo-noir' label too!

Jon said...

Hey Sam thanks for sharing your thoughts and comments! Nice memory for you seeing the film with Allan. I tried to focus on the visuals in my write-up and tried to steer clear of analyzing the film's meanings too much, as I know there are countless sources out there for that and part of the fun is figuring out for yourself what the meaning and interpretation is. Thanks Sam!

Shubhajit said...

I completely agree with your statement that Blade Runner remains as "one of the watershed cinematic experiences of the last thirty years".

It happens to be one of my alltime favourite movies as well. Thankfully I didn't saw the wrong version of this iconic film :)

The expressionistic visuals, the bravura post-production details, and of course the grim nihilism of this brilliantly crafted movie made for a memorable viewing experience.

By the way, I read William Gibson's famous novel Neuromancer a year or so back, and couldn't help but notice the similarities between the two - especially with respect to their cyber-punkish contents.

Terrific review of this seminal sci-fi movie, Jon!!!

Jon said...

Shubhajit, glad to hear that you view this one so highly but I guess I'm not surprised as I've seen it on your sidebar of your 100 favorites. I haven't read that novel but it sounds quite interesting. Thanks for the thoughts!