If an android cries in a thunderstorm
A Blade Runner Review
Note: There are several versions of this film and the following are my impressions of the Final Cut.
Blade Runner was quite different from what I expected; I expected a cat-and-mouse game or a mystery-action-thriller set in a grim future. What I found was more of a character piece or a surreal tone drama. This wasn’t wholly a bad thing and I was pleasantly surprised by how much world building replaced my imagined action but I was unpleasantly surprised by how little of anything else was to be found.
My first impression of Blade Runner was excellent. The visual design was top-notch from the opening fireballs to the flying cars and onward. The looks is slick and original with every scene saying something interesting about this not-quite-dystopian future. I felt completely transported and immersed in the fiction and never got pulled out by inconsistency, anachronism or overtly filmy decisions. Scenes are bookended by flavorful glimpses of the surrounding world rather than packed with such glimpses as in films as in the Star Wars deluxe editions. This works a lot better, because it leaves the scenes while giving them a richer context; there’s no sense in showing the viewer atmospheric details if they distract from the scene at hand and Blade Runner seems to understand how to build ideas and characters into a rich setting without exposition or crowding.
As breathtaking as the images were, the sound design is the real masterwork. From the pidgin language spoken in the background to the placement of traffic sounds and sirens and advertisement noises. Blade Runner is one of the most convincing sounding movies I’ve ever watched aided by the minimal, repetitive electronic score; the music comes in little swells when the camera pans contemplatively over the city scape and from within the world during many of the environmental shots. It feels like the music and sound effects were woven into every scene and shot rather than set up to mirror the action. I cannot stress how refreshing that was for me; many of my favorite scores are stand-alone orchestral pieces that try to create emotions more than to reinforce and play with them. Blade Runner fit the music and sound so elegantly into the tone of a given scene that I think any reaction would have been reinforced. This isn’t necessarily a better way to write film scores as there is something to be said for establishing specific emotions and thoughts for your audience. But it was impeccably done.
The next impression I have of Blade Runner is that everything short of the sound and visuals is incredibly sparse. The performances, the camera movements, the dialog, the story being told, and most of all the happening. This is a very slow, very moody film and I’m not convinced it has all the right pieces to pull that off. Let’s being working our way through the film to see why.
The film starts off with a blank screen and some credits rolling. I appreciate that film-makers want us to actually read the credits, and don’t want to spend money shooting scenes that by nature can’t go much of anywhere or steal too much of our attention. It also adds to the sharp bombast of the fiery explosions that open up across the skyline as the film opens. “This is a strange, foreign place,” it says. We then move into an interrogation of some sort that contains some rather exceptional dialog–remarkable because it feels awkward and forced in-fiction. This is hard to pull off convincingly from the correct side of the fourth wall, and I think it’s another of the movies greatest accomplishments; throughout the film, characters don’t necessarily talk well or eloquently or competently or sensibly. It doesn’t feel real exactly but much of it is believable within the films context surreal context; it also doesn’t feel like a reusable big-budget template. It feels grounded.
The interview ends with a bang and we cut to Deckard (Harrison Ford), our protagonist and apparently one of the best android hunters/murderers in the business. Supposedly that means he’s good. The smarmy head cop pulls him out of retirement good. Here’s where things start to slow down. We’re in touch with the escaped Androids every step of the way. We know what their endgame is, we know how well they’re proceeding. This sort of dual-action formula can work, but it requires something compelling other than the mystery of the chase–maybe the suspense of Deckard following the wrong trail or stepping into a trap. None of that really happens here. Instead we have Deckard half-heartedly and somewhat ineptly following a series of exceedingly simple waypoints that, other than the aformentioned surreality of the whole affair, feel more like a routine police investigation tackled by a down-on-his-luck-for and none-too-sharp private investigator than an intriguing mystery.
There is something to be said for Deckard’s lack of professionalism. He isn’t the cool, slick, accomplished protagonist we’re used to. He isn’t entirely likable either–whether or not this is a good thing or even acceptable varies wildly from viewer to viewer. Personally, I find that in itself refreshing. In this particular film, though, I repeatedly get the impression I’m supposed to be on Deckard’s side. His actions are supposed to be seen as ambiguous or unfortunate but we’re still generally supposed to be on his side. Towards the last act of the film this became exceedingly difficult as it became clear he wasn’t much of a character; all of the depth hinted at before had in fact been revealed in full. This was not a complicated man, and while he was uncomfortable with the moral and physical circumstances his work put him in I felt like it was the discomfort of someone out of their depth rather than someone reconsidering their life and the meaning of the world around them.
Without spoiling the film, it continues to become more loosely connected and surreal until the very end. There are never any particularly big reveals, never any profound changes for any of the characters. Blade Runner was more of a portrait than a story, then. Nothing in it really moves. Not much really happens. It passes by and then fades again. Beautiful, strange, and then gone. Like tears in–sorry.
One more point I’d like to address that speaks to the broader atmosphere of the film: the “love” scene. I found it rather tastefully shot, but disturbingly directed. Giving the film the benefit of the doubt, I would have to assume it was intended to be a disturbing rape. Otherwise it was not only repulsive but also a grave and tasteless error (and I could go on). Going with the former gives some of what I said about the rest of the film a more … (not favorable but the proper phrase escapes me) … favorable context. Now, perhaps, Deckard is desperate and depraved standing in for the everyman ofhis strange world rather than the gruff protagonist of ours. Perhaps this serves to show us how deep and horrible the dehumanization of replicants is. This view has the disadvantage of making an already dark movie even bleaker … but perhaps also gives it a little more credibility. This credibility comes not from the act, to be clear, but from what it means about the world and the protagonist. Not many films intentionally give us so little to love or enjoy about their settings and narratives as this interpretation of Blade Runner does. It is already an incredibly strange movie, with some odd and non-functioning elements … and as disturbing as it renders the main character, seeing this as an intentional move rather than a gaffe gives the film a greater sense coherence and message–but not enough to flesh out its current reputation as anything other than a sensory masterpiece.
In a word: Ambivalence.