Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?
What happens when you enter a cinematic world that is so thoroughly realized that nothing bars your absorption into its fiction? It gains the unique quality of seeming like a much shorter film than it actually is! By the time Blade Runner ends, it always feels like I’ve been watching for twenty minutes, rather than just short of two hours. Dazzled by its daring and still-unsurpassed visual representation of a rain-slick, blimp-festooned neo-noir Los Angeles.
Look at the first minutes of this film. After a short, interest-piquing explanation of the state of artificial life in 2019, Vangelis’ synthesizer music pulls back the curtain on a panorama of fire-breathing chimneys, millions of lights and flying police Spinners. The blasts of flame are reflected in an eye (a running theme) and we approach the monumental, futuristic-yet-ancient pyramids of the Tyrell Corporation. It’s truly breathtaking, and captured solely in slow pans and still shots. The camera is just as much of a monolith, just as solid and robust, as any of the architecture on display. Nothing here doesn’t seem massive and eternal. Within just a few moments, before you’ve seen a single human, the world has guzzled you up. There’s not a doubt this place is as real as your own. Not a single shot following this fails to uphold the fantasy.
Beyond the mesmerizing craft of its universe, this film is above all a wonderful, subtle piece of cinema, filled with auteur details. A side note here: by all means, please see the 2007 Final Cut and forget Blade Runner’s theatrical release, marred as it is by a clumsy narration. Stripped of its ham-fisted noir novel heritage, this becomes less a lore-dump exploration of a locality and more of an introspective journey into Deckard’s experience of it. It’s slightly hazy, inviting uncertainty and subjectivity, furthering the dreamlike state of the story. When Gaff approaches Deckard at the noodle stall, his words are in cityspeak, a(n Edward James Olmos-invented) mish-mash of imported languages. The earlier narration explained this to the point, but having it scrapped lures you into Deckard’s mind: we understand it just as little as he seems to.
And it is, truly, irrelevant, because we get what’s happening. They’re the familiar strokes of a beat-down investigator hauled back to the office for one last job. Deckard is summoned to hunt a team of four Replicants who escaped to Earth from the off-world colonies. He’s to retire them, which is another way of saying to kill them on sight. Deckard reluctantly obliges for reasons that never leave his mind, but finds himself facing a moral dilemma as he inexorably catches up with them.
It’s a simple noir tale, but it manages to do what current movies like Chappie and Avengers: Age of Ultron fail to: really make you think about artificial life, what it means to be human and how we relate to each other. The film lays its own beliefs bare at the start, by referring to replicants as a ‘being, virtually identical to humans’, but whether you follow that train of thought is up to you. The salient point is that you won’t get around to considering it.
Replicants are outwardly imposing, physically Olympian adults with superior mental capacities, yet from their behavior we learn that they’re children emotionally. Leon is frightened and stunted, Pris explores her sensuality in an almost quizzical, ‘playing doctor’ kind of way. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Roy, who fools around with gag eyes and makes even his final confrontation with Deckard feel like a juvenile game of hide and seek. He revels in his physicality the way a child would: pushing his head through walls, leaping around and brandishing war paint. Contrast this to the experimental Rachael, who has false memories embedded in her brain: they form the bedrock for her character, and as a result she is much more of an adult, true to her supposed age.
This seems a conflicting motivation in the Tyrell Corporation, who manufactures the replicants. They ever seek to improve the verisimilitude of their product, making the androids lifelike in every way, yet they curb their lifespan to four years because they know they’ll rise up after they reach a certain emotional maturity and develop a grasp on their thraldom. Call it the unstoppable march of science and discovery. Yet the world of Blade Runner doesn’t feel like progress. This is a realm where old school hunting skills prevail over exotic technologies.
Smart storytelling abounds in this film, which understands the medium as almost purely visual. Notice how the replicants are often framed with light so the pupils in their eyes flare up. When Deckard shoots Zhora, her transparent coat acts as a skin-like container for the spilled blood – perhaps saying that she isn’t actually human or actually killed as a human would be. Then there’s the mystery of the origami figures Gaff leaves behind, telltale indicators of Deckard’s emotional state. And just as soon as it guides you to profound revelations on the nature of real versus artificial, it closes the curtain with another thumping synth anthem and leaves you bedazzled. There’s so much here, you’d be remiss not to watch and rewatch Blade Runner. And why wouldn’t you, when it’s only twenty minutes long?