Blade Runner
directed by Ridley Scott
(Warner Brothers, 1982)

I am especially picky about science-fiction films. There a few I love unabashedly, good or no, like Dune, but in general I look for science fiction films which explore the best of what that genre can do -- reflect who we are by imagining what we or the world could be. Blade Runner is, far and away, the most masterful science fiction film I have ever seen. Many critics, fans and academics have uttered similar praise, and I know there are many, many people out there who agree with me, as shown by the numerous shrine-like websites devoted to its vision. My perspective is, at least, a little different -- for one thing, I'm a woman, and women aren't supposed to like dark sci-fi films. (Ha! And I say again, ha!)

I have an epic story concerning how I am connected to this film, and why I give it such a lofty place in my heart, which I don't need to confess completely here. In short, it is one of my father's favorite films, and though I was much too young the first time (around 8), by my second viewing (at age 12) I was completely entranced.

I have since seen it numerous times -- I'm guessing around 30 times by this date -- and I have yet to tire of it. I have studied it in a variety of classes, and written about five papers on different aspects of it. I barrage my friends with discussions about it and define just why it is the coolest science-fiction film made thus far (it almost rivals my other obsession, Lawrence of Arabia, but you'd have to check with my freshman-year college roommate on just how closely the obsessions rival each other). Personal connections aside, its merits as a film are enough to show its greatness.

Quick summary of the plot, based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep?: The scene is set in a bleak, eternally rain-drenched Los Angeles in 2019. At this point those who can -- i.e. have the money or power -- have moved away from Earth to idyllic off-world colonies. Those who remain are a variety of ethnicities and outcasts. Aside from all of the current varieties that human beings come in, there is a new group to add to the list: replicants. Replicants are genetically engineered human beings, built for everything that humans were previously too weak or independent-minded to do. They are stronger, more resilient and more intelligent than we are. Considering this, however, they are also dangerous -- what is to prevent them from revolting and conquering their lesser masters? A very simple device was implemented to prevent this very event -- they only live for three years. After a particularly brutal attempt at escape by a renegade band of replicants, they have been outlawed from Earth and are instead used only for work or pleasure.

Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a blade runner, a specially trained detective who hunts down renegade replicants and "retires" them. The difficulty comes in recognizing replicants for what they are -- they look and act as we do. Their short lifespan, however, affects their emotional growth and reaction time. There is a complicated multiple-choice test which helps to identify these wolves in sheeps clothing -- if you can catch one and make it take the test. Mostly, however, Deckard works from instinct and rap sheets for identification. At the beginning of the story, he gets dragged out of retirement to hunt down and retire a renegade group (Daryl Hannah, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy) led by Roy (Rutger Hauer), a brilliant, god-like replicant built for covert operations.

Enter a glitch is this well-oiled system -- the replicants are getting more restless, and the corporation which produces them now provides them with memories as a fail-safe system for keeping them under control. It stabilizes their emotional core and allows them the illusion of identity. The question then is, what really separates them from us? This question is embodied by Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant implanted with another woman's memories and who holds a strange allure for Deckard.

Blade Runner has a distinctly human heart at the center of its story. Whether you feel that center is Deckard or Roy remains up to you, though I am personally always won over by Roy's simple, if terribly destructive, desire to live and be "human." Blade Runner addresses so many issues, presented in subtle and mostly unpretentious ways, that it has become a great example of just how ridiculous and brainless most science-fiction shoot-em-up films really are.

The vision of Blade Runner is distinctly '80s, though it is still seamless in terms of special effects. Much like Tron, it is unmistakably marked by the decade in which it was made, and yet it manages to have such a self-contained world that it doesn't jar when you see it 10 or 15 years later. The direction and scope are breathtaking, and glorious. Ridley Scott does it again. The acting is also quite interesting -- and though not perhaps the best of, say, Harrison Ford's work, it was certainly the best of Rutger Hauer's. He has never again imbued a character so magnificent with such vulnerability and desperate rage.

In a world where science fiction is ever becoming more and more real, with cloning and genetic manipulation, the questions of humanity and how far we should allow ourselves to manipulate our own DNA are certainly valid. Blade Runner does this with emotion and a deftness which leaves most other films in the dust.

One word of warning -- you have to be in the right mood to watch this film. It is generally slow moving, and there is a lot of dialogue which takes a little while to digest. I am personally (of course!) a fan of the Director's Cut, which lops off the studio-implanted happy ending and removes the noir-detective voiceovers. However, it can be a very confusing film for people who are not already familiar with the story or with science fiction in general. In filming the literary genre of cyberpunk fiction, there's a lot of assumption of understanding of how science fiction usually functions. If you haven't come across cyberpunk fiction (Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, etc.) then this film may be more confusing than the usual sci-fi flick. Then again, that may be a good thing. A different vision is hard enough to find in filmmaking, so immersing yourself in this kind of story may be just the thing to make you remember just why filmmaking and storytelling are so vital.

[ by Robin Brenner ]

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