The impending release of Prometheus has encouraged me to revisit director Ridley Scott's previous work in science fiction, two of the best - and, it must be confessed, two of the most over-discussed - genre films ever made.
Blade Runner as though it were nothing but an exercise in style for style's sake on the part of director Ridley Scott; and while we prefer to do what is not obvious here, even when it means making the sort of contortions of logic and expression that really are just not worth it, sometimes you have to genuflect, humbly, in the direction of conventional wisdom. Blade Runner is one of the great masterpieces of production design in all the history of cinema, and that's just that; calling it the most visually influential science fiction film since Metropolis, 55 years its senior, isn't really an opinion at this point, so much as it's pointing out a fact that, yes, virtually every sci-fi movie since 1982 - and, for that matter, a great many films that are only tangentially sci-fi, if that - owes an unpayable debt to production designer Lawrence G. Paull and art director David Snyder, and their epochal vision of life in 2019,* an impenetrably dark, worn-out, neon-poisoned urban hellscape that updates the rotten cities of '50s film noir by making it look like a drunkard's nightmare after watching Star Wars.
If the chief job of science fiction is the building of a compelling, coherent, consistent world (and if it's not the chief job, it's something science fiction does, on the whole, better than any other genre save perhaps fantasy - print fantasy, anyway, cinema fantasy is far too often a dispiriting, nutrient-starved husk), then certainly, Blade Runner is great science fiction: there's not a single detail that feels out of place, and nothing that seems to exist solely for the sake of adding color and style, though, admittedly, much of what we see, starting with the blast of flame coming out of some unknown refinery, is not part of the world that we ever get to know about. And this, in itself, is part of what makes the world-building in Blade Runner so exquisite: for all that the complicated narrative itself involves a great deal of visual exposition (and, frequently, only visual exposition: it's hard for me to immediately think of a comparatively mainstream film that does more of its narrative heavy lifting through the implication of what certain elements of the mise en scène imply about the characters or situation), most of what we see in the movie either has nothing to do with the meat of the film at all - one thinks of how the Tyrell Corporation building, so central to the plot, is merely one of many large, monolithic structures, all of them presumably large companies, all undoubtedly with their own intrigues - serving only to give the most general sort of texture to the world and culture being depicted, to suggest the unexplored corners of this universe and give it a sense of reality and depth. The shrill advertisements for off-planet vacationing alone are enough to tell a story of the film world's technological advancement, its class structure, its level of corporatisation; all of these things that give the film texture and a sense of depth and plausibility that serves only to give the narrative and characters extra weight, to suggest a certain range of emotions (the misery of those constantly reminded of what they do not have), and not to carry along the story in any particular way at all. It is all filigree: magnificently compelling filigree, I should hasten to point out. And it certainly creates a mood that the film deeply requires in order that it should be such an engrossing experience. But it is, yes, an exercise in "empty style", as though there's anything empty about creating a universe so complete in every detail, from lunar time shares to synthetic pets, that it feels more tangible and plausible than a thousand movies set in a world unremarkably similar to our own (though with the presence of several real-world corporations, many of them now defunct, and a heavy Asian influence suggesting that the filmmakers expected the tiger economies to keep on booming, this is, in effect, meant to be a realistic extension of of our own world).
Before I go any further: I praised the film for its restrained, largely visual delivery of key information; and this is only true sometime. There are no few than seven cuts of Blade Runner, famously: five of them readily available on home video. I will not bother doing much compare and contrast other than to note that I have not seen all of them, for by and large, the differences are extremely subtle: between the 1992 "Director's Cut" (based on Scott's notes but not overseen by him personally) and the 2007 "Final Cut", there are virtually no substantive differences that aren't largely cosmetic: CGI massaging to make continuity better, for the most part, and less than a minute of shots added back in to give a few moments a bit more heft, and since we can't have something as simple as a re-edit thats unambiguously the definitive version, a major confrontation between the antagonist and a secondary character has been disastrously re-conceived to have a much different, much less affecting emotional tenor. Most importantly, though, both of these cuts remove the voice-over narration present in the 1982 theatrical cut (a different version for the U.S. and Europe; I have only seen the former), and this narration, in general, is insufferable and tends to make the movie both more obvious and blander. And this runs entirely contrary to the thing I was saying about subtle, visual exposition. Which is why, insofar as it matters, this review is based on the 2007 cut; but all versions are essentially identical, and most of what is good about the best version is also good about the worst version. The whole affair is an exercise in incrementalism, with the narration not wrecking the 1982 cut so much as it lessens it, discernibly but not dramatically. I regret that there's no reviewing the movie without dealing with that issue, but there it is.
And now I am free to talk about the plot, there there isn't much of it for such a dense movie. A "Blade Runner", the name's meaning never addressed in the movie, is someone who hunts down any rogue humanoid robots - "Replicants" - who manage to land on Earth and thereby threaten the populace. Our current blade runner is Deckard (Harrison Ford), tasked with retrieving either four or five replicants, depending on a famous continuity gaffe that doesn't appear in all cuts; in chasing them down, he falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a wholly unrelated replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), and eventually finds that the leader of the rogue replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), is acting not out of any kind of malice or psychopathy, but because he has a crippling and all-encompassing fear of the mortality that was built right into his system as a failsafe.
It's pretty basic noir material, really: a simple assignment that finds a low-rent, scruffy hero with very few admirable character traits getting in over his head and finding out a) that his new lady as a secret, and b) that the straightforward job he took is far nastier and more challenging than he'd been led to believe. It's adapted, I understand quite loosely, from Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, which I haven't ever gotten around to reading; but the important thing here isn't the mystery plot, which Scott cares about very little indeed, leaving parts of it almost completely indecipherable even in the most "understandable" versions of the film. Nor can we accurately say that it's a film about characters: Ford does an outstanding job of playing a noir archetype with great personal fortitude and a perpetual look of joyless confusion, but he is mostly a meat puppet, placed where he needs to be and asked to project some basic sensations, but not "acting" in an especially meaningful way. Only Hauer actually makes a particularly strong impression in the whole movie as an actual psychological presence (several actors make an impression as a stock type or thanks to an especially sharp line delivery), and this is probably on purpose: like 2001: A Space Odyssey - which Blade Runner resembles in a great many ways, most of them superficial - the thrust is that only an artificial being can be effectively human in a world of increased mechanisation and technology making the human experience itself largely artificial.
I go back and forth on the question of whether or not this theme is presented with intelligence and sophistication and grace, or whether it's simply another iteration of one of the most ancient questions in science fiction "what does it mean to be human" given the illusion of depth because of the mind-boggling sophistication of the design. Hauer's work tends to favor the former (as does the shockingly great electronic score by Vangelis, all done up in dreamy minor keys); in the other cuts than the most recent, his confrontation with his creator is easily the most haunting moment in the film, and his final speech to Deckard is so forceful and poetic that I have, for myself, always found it quite easy to forgive how opaque and self-consciously artsy the whole thing is (though the dove that follows, that's a bridge too far). It's strange to think of such an arch, garishly German performance providing the film with its emotional and thematic spine, and yet that's what it comes down to: absent that presence, it's a gorgeous but glum manhunt noir hiding in another genre's clothes, terrific filmmaking but just short of real brilliance. Hauer pushes it over there: his sympathetic inhumanity and undisciplined emoting allow something unique and piercing to enter this exercise in style. That this is all the exact point can be seen, I think, in how Ford's performance changes in the last moments: he plays the final scene of the movie with a peerless kind of ambiguity that is seen nowhere else in his character and reflects, I think, what he has "learned" from Batty about being a person. This all taps into a very dense and nihilistic irony, I suppose, yet there's nothing that can fairly be called ironic about the rush of the last 10 or 15 minutes of the movie, and it takes a particularly weird kind of sincerity to end a movie that has been for its entire running time an exploration of surfaces and pre-packaged thoughts and feelings with its most sublime and humane gesture. And that, my friends, is what makes Blade Runner a masterpiece.