Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Why Blade Runner (1982) is the last all-time great of the film noirs

Originally Written in 2009

I recently read a review of Blade Runner which stated, toward the end of the rather meagre paragraph, “There is [sic] no stunning fights in this movie.” That is quite possibly the worst criticism of a film I have ever heard in my life. Perhaps this film isn’t supposed to have stunning fights in it? I could think of a hundred other totally non-violent films which are loved by almost everybody, and none of them, while they might be great in their own way, come close to this phenomenon of a movie. It might feature some action, but really it’s not an action movie at all; its central message is something much deeper.

Blade Runner is, of course, science-fiction; but anyone expecting the bombastic music and careering space cruisers of Star Wars or the sweeping deserts of Dune is watching the wrong film. Most science-fiction movies revel in being in outer space, thrilling five year olds with the blowing-up spaceships, thrilling teenagers with the pumping adrenaline, non-stop action, and thrilling men with the scantily-clad damsels in distress. Whereas Blade Runner is a different kettle of fish: it’s not merely set in the future for the sake of being set in the future. The plot would work just as well in the 1940s, with only minor tweaking; the point being that the underlying message about what it means to be human is the main part of Blade Runner’s success.

I think it’s safe to say that a movie merits conclusion in the Top 10 Films of All Time when, for 147 glorious minutes, it rises above the level of “great movie” and hits the level of “a work of art”. Every shot is slaved over laboriously by director Ridley Scott. The gloom and lights of a dystopian world – the decaying, rain-streaked streets of 2019 Los Angeles – come to life in a way no other film achieves. Scott creates a whole world of shadows with a few subtle camera angle changes. The effects are incredible – although, unlike many science-fiction movies, Scott is aware that a movie that has effects also needs plot, which his movie has in spades. This is the ultimate 20th century film: 1940s film noir meets 1980s science fiction.

I find it odd that the film was hated on its original release, whereas now it is hailed as a cult classic – even Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford hated this movie; the behind-the-scenes tumult of Blade Runner is public knowledge, and the two do not have any fondness for the film as a result of this. And this is especially ironic, because here, in the sensitive yet tough cop Rick Deckard, we have Harrison Ford playing the role he was born to play.

People talk about Han Solo or Indiana Jones. No one else could play those parts like Ford, I’ll give you that; but those roles were made for him, and when it comes to Deckard, he is made for the role. The character is thematic on so many levels. He’s wonderful because he is such a bad hero – he’s merely dealing with things the way he can, because he can do nothing else. He chases down “replicant” robots and kills them, but almost at the cost of his own life. His romance with Rachel goes astray. But the greatest triumph is that even by the end you find yourself rooting for Deckard, in a way that you root for no other heroes, because none of them have so single-handedly and instantaneously endeared themselves to the viewer.

Sean Young excels herself as Rachel Tyrell, totally revolutionizing the role of femme fatale. There is nothing so gripping in a movie as the moral ambiguity of one of the characters, and the worry in Deckard’s mind, throughout the film, that Rachel herself could be a replicant, is one of the most fascinating and subtly-played psychological dilemmas in cinema history.

The cast is stellar, but not stellar enough to be huge household names: there are no Derek Jacobis or Judi Denches here. That’s not to say the rest of the cast isn’t good, not at all: you simply don’t take Harrison Ford and put him in a movie where he is surrounded by terrible actors. William Sanderson exudes pathos as J.F. Sebastian, the creator of the replicants, a quiet and lonely genius whose death is as moving as it is disturbing. The replicants themselves are all outstanding: Joanna Cassidy as Zhora, a woman who has seen the worst of humanity; Brion James as Leon, a nervous and yet irrepressibly creepy replicant masquerading as an engineer; and Daryl Hannah as Pris, the youngest replicant, who walks the fine line between aesthetically pleasing her victims and viciously murdering them.

Quite possibly, Rutger Hauer, who plays the fourth replicant Roy, outshines even Ford in this film. He is the quintessential villain – cold, Aryan, flawless. But he’s also so much deeper than most villains: he might be uncontrollably vicious, but he is a thoughtful philosopher in the same scenes. You feel for him. This is an outstanding achievement. The villain, this man we have seen crushing people’s faces in, and howling grotesquely like a wolf in a brutal, nightmarish fight, is a living, breathing character the viewers care for. His death scene is so intensely moving it’s painful to watch. Hauer sits on the rooftop, rain streaking down his face, delivering the most beautiful monologue in movie history, as Deckard looks on. And apparently he made his lines in that scene up on the spot. It's hard to believe.

The effects, I have already said, are unbelievable, setting the trend for most future science-fiction movies. Vangelis’ eerie musical score is beautiful and creepy at the same time. At the heart of the movie, the philosophical, theological questions raised are far too deep for the human mind to contemplate, all of it wrapped up in the complex themes of the story. The message is clearly got across: there is so much ambiguity in this movie, however, that we’re not quite sure how we’re supposed to take it – with the replicants, and the dilemma about humanity, there is a subtle and underplayed question which is, how different are humans to these murdering killers? How is Deckard that different to Roy? And that is where Blade Runner scores most of its points, and why people keep revisiting it, time and time again.

Last Of the Great Film Noirs: Blade Runner in six words. Pretty stunning after all, then.

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