November 03, 2013

Blade Runner

Years ago I fell asleep during a screening of Blade Runner (1982) in a college class called Art of Cinema. Last night I finally sat down to give it another go, and lo and behold, the same problem reared its head. For all its lush, grandiose production design, Blade Runner is a bore: a beauty with no personality. Harrison Ford, usually capable of carrying a movie when it's not so hot, wanders through Blade Runner a prisoner to its massive size. That bigness ends up sinking both the actors and the plot: they're crushed under the film's dead weight.

Director Ridley Scott tries to utilize the same deliberate pacing he employed so effectively in Alien, but it doesn't translate well to Blade Runner, because there's no pay-off, and we're just waiting, waiting, waiting, occasionally admiring the film's artistic prowess, even shaking our heads that the movie got some of its prophesies--it's set in a wastelandish Los Angeles future (2019 to be exact)--right (such as the increasing specter of advertising in our lives, although I suppose that wasn't so different in the early 1980s).  

Alien is one of the slowest movies I've ever seen, and yet I find it absolutely riveting. The whole movie has a palpable tension running through it because you know something is going to happen, and while Alien is a visually stunning film in its own right, it also practices a kind of economy that makes its pace and its characters (about whom we know very little, and dare I say, care for even less, at times) work for it. Blade Runner has both the slow pace and the unlikable characters, but it's saturated in a kind of artiness that works against it: you feel immersed in the murky surroundings of the neo-gothic urban decay and it fills you with dread. The synth score by Vangelis provides the final sheen of heavy-handed excess. (And yet many people seem to see in Scott's second major film a masterpiece.)

Scott seems intent on conjuring up the American movie past in Blade Runner. One of his heroines--Sean Young--is made up to resemble Rosalind Russell from a Howard Hawks movie, and it's pretty clear that Harrison Ford, who plays a robot bounty hunter (the robots are called replicants because they are such perfect imitators of humans--down to their memories and emotions--and he's called a blade runner) enlisted to assassinate four robots that have illegally returned to earth to exist among the humans. Ford's mission is complicated when he falls in love with one of the replicants and feels guilty for killing another. We're supposed to ponder deep philosophical questions about what it means to be human, and while these are interesting questions, they're not enough to sustain a movie that feels so intentionally important. I didn't have to work to enjoy Alien. Blade Runner demands that I appreciate how significant it is.

Based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Adapted for the screen by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. With Rutger Hauer (who's an impressive, captivating actor just to behold; he commands the screen when he's in front of the camera), Daryl Hannah, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmett Walsh, William Sanderson, Joe Turkel, and Joanna Cassidy.

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