Are We Sure ‘Blade Runner’ Is a Great Movie?
Right off the bat, I want to make this perfectly, 100-percent, don’t-@-me clear: I don’t think Blade Runner is a bad movie. It is a good movie.
But is it a great movie? After at least ten viewings of three different cuts of the film, I’m still not convinced. With its ambition and vision, it’s the kind of film that any self-respecting cinephile is supposed to love. I want to love Blade Runner. Or at least I feel like I should. But I don’t.
There are parts of it I love. You would have to be blind not to appreciate the film’s remarkable special effects, which create a thrilling and disturbing vision of dystopian Los Angeles circa 2019. Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography, Lawrence G. Paull’s production design, and David L. Snyder’s art direction are all amongst the most inventive in science-fiction history. Interweaving film noir iconography with one of the darkest futures imaginable, Blade Runner was a legitimate game changer for sci-fi. It helped popularize the cyberpunk sub-genre, and inspired decades of movies, television shows, books, and comics about all kinds of beautiful and hideous tomorrows looming just over the horizon.
Many of Blade Runner’s spiritual children are good works of art in their own right. But looking back at Blade Runner with the benefit of hindsight, I do wonder if its influence wasn’t entirely positive. Because Blade Runner is far from a perfect movie. And its progeny often copied its weaknesses as well as its strengths.
Consider the clip above, featuring Harrison Ford as “blade runner” Rick Deckard and Sean Young as Rachael, the assistant to the man responsible for creating Blade Runner’s “replicants,” uncannily lifelike robots with enhanced strength and durability who are used as slaves in Earth’s efforts to colonize outer space. Deckard is a cop who hunts down and kills escaped replicants. Using a “Voight-Kampff test,” he can establish whether a person is real or a replicant (unless a beam of light hits their eyes at just the right angle, the robots are apparently otherwise indistinguishable from ordinary humans).
The Voight-Kampff questions are all inscrutable and strange. They don’t seem like an effective measure of a person’s humanity. Most aren’t even questions. (“It’s your birthday. Someone gives you a calf-skin wallet.” Um, okay.) And a significant chunk of Blade Runner’s first half is devoted to these tests and their endless, repetitive inquisitions. These scenes are not illuminating, and that’s part of the point; Blade Runner is ultimately about how a person’s true nature is unknowable. But a little of this stuff goes a long way.
Deckard gives Rachael a Voight-Kampff test and realizes that she is a replicant. But Rachael herself doesn’t know that; she has emotions and feelings and childhood memories. In the “Somebody Else’s Memories” video, Deckard reveals that all of that is a trick of clever computer programming.
But a computer could have written that scene. Rachael (and possibly Deckard, whose true nature is one of the eternal questions that Blade Runner devotees love to discuss) are supposed to be so human that only this baffling test can prove who they really are. But their interaction in this scene is so stiff and artificial. For years, fans have pondered whether Deckard is a replicant who doesn’t know it. To me, the best evidence that both these characters are robots, and not particularly convincing ones at that, is simply watching them try to have a normal conversation in this sequence.
Director Ridley Scott would surely say this is by design, representative of the way this future has dehumanized its inhabitants. Certainly it fits, in an aesthetic sense, with Blade Runner’s bleak view of our chances for survival as a species. But it also closes us off from connecting to any of these characters or their fates. Deckard and Rachael’s relationship (and their eventual romance) is supposed to be the emotional backbone of Blade Runner. But their relationship mostly seems to be one of narrative convenience, particularly when Rachael saves Deckard’s life for no apparent reason. The end of the film, with a sudden cut to black after Deckard and Rachael leave his apartment together, should land with a huge emotional impact. It does not.
Of course, that ending is still vastly superior to the one that appeared during the film’s initial theatrical run, where Rachael and Deckard escape to ... Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining? (The aerial footage in the video below consists of outtakes from Kubrick’s Shining shoot.) The theatrical ending is baffling on so many levels. The thing that drives Blade Runner’s entire plot is the fact that the replicants have an artificially shortened four-year life span; that’s why the replicants escape to Earth, looking for a way to extend their lives. Then, after all of that in the theatrical cut, Harrison Ford’s voiceover is like “Nope, that was wrong! Rachael’s going to live for a long time!” Also, the rest of Blade Runner’s 2019 looks like an environmental wasteland. Where did all these trees come from? If this exists, why would anyone choose to live in an urban wasteland?
And that voiceover; oh, that voiceover. Harrison Ford knew he was being recorded when he said this stuff, right? It’s hard to imagine an actor as good as he is giving a vocal performance as bad as this.
I was born a couple years before Blade Runner opened in the summer of 1982. Back then, the film was, at best, a mild success. Reviews were mixed and the box-office numbers weren’t much better. (Adjusted for inflation, it made a little over $70 million in theaters.) By the time I saw it almost 15 years later, however, its reputation had exploded. Scott’s first Director’s Cut was released in 1992, cementing its reputation as a work of genius butchered by craven studio executives who were worried (probably rightly) about the financial prospects of a dark film with an ambiguous ending. By the time I heard about it, Blade Runner was already lionized as one of the greatest of all cult films.
Maybe my expectations were too high. Then, and now, I find Blade Runner an easy film to admire, and a tough one to like. The questions it raises about humanity and personhood are genuinely fascinating, but they’re more fun to discuss in the abstract than they are to watch in action (or inaction, mostly) onscreen. No matter the version, Blade Runner is dry, slow, and unexciting with some very uneven performances. It’s a so-so movie set inside a truly visionary cinematic universe.
Though Ridley Scott and Blade Runner are hardly to blame for what came next, the film now seems like a harbinger of dark days to come, and not just in terms of the environment or men’s fashion. Ambitious and groundbreaking as it may be, Blade Runner also emphasizes worldbuilding over storytelling and richly detailed characters, like so many modern blockbusters that seem to devote all their creative energies to design and interconnectedness at the expense of narrative stakes and emotional resonance.
That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by Blade Runner 2049. Denis Villeneuve’s sequel maintains Scott’s cynical futurism, but layers in so much more sentiment, both with the evolution of Deckard’s character and the film’s new hero, K, played by Ryan Gosling. Instead of a wild goose chase, Blade Runner 2049 is a legitimate mystery; a compelling whodunit with razor-sharp twists. And Roger Deakins’ cinematography ensures 2049 looks even more astounding than the original. After all the different cuts of Blade Runner through the years, it took a new sequel from a new director to finally make the ideal version of it.