Well, after last week I reviewed a film whose behind-the-scenes dramas were more interesting than the final product, I thought it prudent to review a film that was as interesting as its production stories. Not really, of course, this was already wheeling across the firing range and I needed something fun to write for the opening paragraph, so there you go.
Ridley Scott is a filmmaker I greatly admire, he’s not perfect of course, and his CV boasts such duds as Robin Hood (the 2010 version, I know there’s been approximately 3 million films with that name) and Exodus: Gods and Kings, but when he’s firing on all cylinders, there are few better.
His good films read like a ‘who’s who’ of the greatest films of the last 50 years. There’s Alien and Thelma & Louise as examples of some of his older material, and even recently, he’s been behind The Martian and All The Money in the World, so his pedigree is unquestionable, which brings me to today’s topic; the film Scott himself considers to be his best work: Blade Runner.
Based on the classic Phillip K Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Blade Runner is a film that mashes together aspects of the classic Hollywood ‘hard-boiled detective’ plot with a cyberpunk, future dystopian aesthetic, telling the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a police officer with the job of hunting down ‘Replicants’ androids built to resemble humans, while along the way finding out what it means to be truly human.
The thing that comes to mind when thinking of Blade Runner, at least for me, is its striking visuals. That’s not to say its story or characters are lacking, just that the visuals really help to realise this vision of a cyberpunk dystopian future, so much so that they form the core atmosphere of the film’s presentation. It says a lot about a films design choices when they’re influencing other films several decades later, as films continue to try and top Blade Runner’s aesthetic, and frequently fall short.
That word I used: ‘atmosphere’ was very deliberately chosen, as I think it’s the key strength behind a lot of Scott’s best film. When I think of Alien, I think of the oppressiveness and tension that is built throughout the narrative, similarly here the cyberpunk, futuristic design creates the feeling of a cohesive world, one that is so believable you can almost reach out and touch it, and the narrative utilises these settings much to its advantage.
The result is a film that feels almost ethereal and other-worldly in its vision, while explicitly being set on Earth, albeit a future (at the time) vision of earth that is so far removed from the reality of the Earth it occupies that it makes it feel like another planet, even when certain things are recognisable.
Further helping with this feeling is the soundtrack. Now, I don’t often talk about soundtracks, not that I don’t notice them, it’s just that by the time I’ve talked about the main talking points of a film, the review is well over 1,000 words and I assume you all have very important lives to get back to, so understand how significant a score has to be for it to warrant such an early mention.
A film’s soundtrack is crucial to its feel, to its style, it’s something we often take for granted, but we’d soon notice if it were taken away, chances are if you think of an iconic film scene, you could hum a piece of the score, it’s almost subconscious in the way it affects us, but it’s still there, and it’s even more crucial in Blade Runner, as it’s electronic, almost alien sounds merge seamlessly with this dystopian future that has been crafted before our eyes.
I’d say that Blade Runner was first and foremost a story of the setting in which it occupies, it’s about the world it’s built for us, and how that world works, but it also grapples with some serious ethical questions surrounding the difference between humans and androids.
It’s a very philosophically ambiguous film, one which leads its audience to choose who the villain of the story is, and manages a very rare feat of making an effectively unsettling antagonist seem very sympathetic too; it makes you empathise with their struggles, that of a machine being built to be human, and even being implanted with memories to fool it into believing that it’s human, leaving us to wonder who is the real monster in this story? Is it the creations or the creators, in much the same way that Frankenstein offers the same moral dilemma, Blade Runner further muddies the waters by not disclosing whether or not the lead character is also a replicant.
This is a very clever sleight of hand, although having just rewatched the film, it doesn’t tend to be as big an issue morally as the constant argument would have you believe, as it not only sets up the lead character as a mystery but makes his love interest a replicant too, adding another layer of uncertainty to Deckard’s motivations.
Ask any fan of this film about their personal favourite aspects of it, and they’re likely to say the climactic confrontation between Deckard and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in which Roy delivers an all-time great dying monologue, one which has become iconic in the years since, while it’s incredibly well-written and acted, it’s once again the visual design which steals the show, bathing the scene in a mixture of rainfall and futuristic neon which permeates the films overall design while encapsulating the films key messages.
Some viewers may find the film to be pretentious with its morally-complex sci-fi aesthetic and slower pace, and I can see how you would be disappointed if you came into it expecting something along the lines of other contemporary sci-fi films from that period, but I think of it like I think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in that it’s contemplative sci-fi with a more complex and deep narrative that has proven to be so influential on the genre, one whose pretentiousness strikes just the right balance to make it entertaining, and its influence endearing, without threatening to lose itself in its own little world. In reality, it can be as deep and complex as you want it to be.
If you want it to be an action film where Harrison Ford hunts down dastardly androids, it has that for you, maybe not enough for those with a shorter attention span but it’s still there, you can engage with it on a basic level of understanding, or you can choose to delve within its layers of complexity and lose yourself in its world, and that’s really the charm of Blade Runner, you can lose yourself in complexity and atmosphere of you want to, but the option is there to enjoy it as a piece of escapism, it treads that line very effectively.
At the end of the day, it isn’t Star Wars, and I would understand your disappointment if you came into it expecting that, but if you allow yourself to be taken in by the world the film builds and the characters that populate it, you can become very quickly absorbed.