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Entries in Blade Runner [Theatrical/1982] (1)

Tuesday
Aug302011

Blade Runner (Theatrical Cut, 1982)

No Replication Without Representation

Two things compelled me to watch and review the theatrical cut of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. The first is the somewhat recent news that George Lucas can't keep his goddamned hands off the Star Wars movies. The second is a strange, sudden need for closure to an issue that's haunted me since the age of five.

Until this morning, I'd never seen Blade Runner in its entirety. One of my earliest moviegoing memories was watching it in the theatre with my mother. But as with most memories from that time, I recall little beyond wondering how Han Solo was able to talk without moving his lips, and why he was wearing that ridiculous coat. About fifteen years later, when the Director's Cut hit home video, me and my girlfriend at the time rented it and fell asleep about twenty minutes in. The problem, I assumed, was that Scott had removed Harrison Ford's expository voice-over, leaving nothing but a lot of walking and/or flying around what looked to be a futuristic neon Chinatown.

In the years since, the movie has come up in conversation, in stand-up comedy bits by Patton Oswalt, and in countless media references to Scott's influence on the pop cultural landscape. Recently, he announced that after he's done knocking around the Alien universe he helped to create, he'll return to the world of Blade Runner for some sort of sequel/prequel/re-imagining. Knowing that, I figured it was finally time to find out why the original film is such a big deal.

Right away, I hit a wall. Where to begin? With seven known versions of the movie in existence, and five immediately available on my blu-ray shelf (hey, the set was on sale), where would be the best place to start? Scott's definitive "Final Cut"? The controversial, nap-friendly "Director's Cut"? Or any of the slightly tweaked variants that came out of the 1982 theatrical release?

The most obvious answer to me, and potentially the most unnerving to Blade Runner fans, was the theatrical cut. Despite anyone's perceived imperfections, this version of the movie captured many peoples' imaginations for a decade, before Scott refined a single frame or sound cue.

What's so great about Blade Runner? As it turns out, the answer is, "pretty much everything." Even in its initial presentation, Ridley Scott's vision of 2017 Los Angeles is so complete that he essentially presaged the immersive video game experience decades before it was realized. Often, when I think of movies as video games, it's not a flattering comparison; in this case, though, I found the world to be much more interesting than the people who inhabit it--with some exceptions.

The story follows an ex-"blade runner" named Rick Deckard (Ford). He used to be part of an elite branch of the police force whose job it was to hunt and kill "replicants", humanoid robots created by the overzealous Tyrell Corporation. The androids were meant to be used as slave labor for colonizing other planets, but their programming included the ability to develop emotions; sure enough, a group of them rebelled, making their kind instant enemies of the human race. Deckard, now a down-on-his luck drunk, gets called in by his old boss, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh), to dispose of four "skin-jobs" who've made their way back to Earth.

In classic film noir fashion, Deckard reluctantly takes what is essentially a private-eye job and falls in love with a femme fatale/Tyrell employee named Rachael (Sean Young). He soon discovers that she is a next-generation replicant created by Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel); she was designed to experience memories real enough to prevent her from realizing her artificial nature, thus lessening the threat of problems during her four-year lifespan. But none of this part of the story is interesting.

Sorry, it's just not.

No, the real hero of Blade Runner is Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the angel-faced leader of the rogue replicants who's returned home to ask his maker for more time. Along with thug-bot Leon (Brion James), sex-bot Pris (Daryl Hannah), and, um, stripper-bot Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), he searches the city for a way to get to the reclusive and extremely well-protected inventor. Each member of the gang eventually runs afoul of Deckard, and I'd like to stress the word "eventually".

Much of Blade Runner is about showing off the sad, technology-obsessed world of the future imagined by legendary novelist Philip K. Dick. Screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples back-load the hell out of this picture with a meandering, hour-and-a-half lead-in to the really exciting stuff. And that's okay. If you're a production design nut like I am, you'll be endlessly fascinated with the similarities between the aesthetics of this culture and the one portrayed in Alien, another Scott film; it's even possible that the two movies exist in the same universe, maybe only a few years apart. It's those kinds of mental exercises that will keep you going as Deckard and Rachael try to figure out if they can...

I'm falling asleep already.

Sorry to say, Harrison Ford is pretty terrible in this film. He's got a great look, and he knows when to flip that dashingly handsome charm/menace switch, but Deckard as written here is a third-rate Humphrey Bogart who just happens to live in a world of hover-cars. He's very blank. And while that may have been intentional on the filmmakers' part (the debate still rages on as to whether or not Deckard is a replicant--I vote "yes"), it doesn't make for very compelling cinema. Together, Ford and Young, with her Small Wonder-style line delivery, compete for attention with the textured walls in Deckard's apartment. The walls win.

But Hauer and Hannah are positively mesmerizing as confused androids. They're dying computers who were created to potentially phase-out human beings, but now it is they who are up against the clock--faulty products thrown away by a manufacturing society who so desperately wanted them in the first place. The determination, madness, and desire to be loved that Hauer brings to Batty's face is worth twenty minutes of screen time alone. And Hannah is so in control of her ferocious sexuality that even her late-picture decision to dress as an aerobics-class Thundercat can't temper her hotness.

Blade Runner is the rare movie in which the themes and atmosphere take a front seat to much of the acting. Scott, Fancher, and Peoples succeed in making a wholly convincing, unique world that I would really like to spend time in (okay, maybe just observe more of from the safety of an ultra-sanitized bubble). My one bit of real conflict between this version and what I know of the Director's Cut is that while Ford's narration is delivered as if reading a shopping list in the middle of a NyQuil nap, I think the text of what he's saying is important to the flow and understanding of the film. Ideally, we could pass the hat to get Ford and Scott to release the Narrative Cut, in which the star performs his lines as if he gives a shit (yes, it would have to be a really, really big hat).

To my younger readers, and to my older ones who--like me--never got around to watching Blade Runner for whatever reason, I highly recommend it. It's a strange feeling to endorse a movie whose central plot line and actors are completely superfluous and at the same time damaging to the rest of the picture--but I'm doing it.

And before you start typing angry comments, please know that this Blade Runner experience has opened up a can of curiosty within me whose lid I can't quite screw back on. I plan to watch and review--eventually--the other four versions to compare and contrast them with the one that started it all. It'll be a nightmare task, I'm sure, but if it means more Rutger Hauer and possible redemption for the Deckard/Rachael storyline, it'll be worth it.

I hope.