Thursday 27 December 2012

Movie Review: Blade Runner (1982)

A triumph of visual style over narrative substance, Blade Runner is a magnificent sensory achievement. Director Ridley Scott creates a sombre future Los Angeles that is all too believable, and the stunning images enrich the otherwise standard story of a hunt for rogue replicants.

In 2019, the world's cities are polluted and overpopulated, and many humans live and work on other planets.  Human-like robots, known as replicants, are manufactured by the dominant Tyrell Corporation to help perform specific functions, but the powerful Nexus-6 models, built with a four-year limit on their life, are specifically prohibited from Earth due to violent tendencies. Retired Los Angeles police officer Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a "Blade Runner", a specialist in tracking down and "retiring" rogue replicants. With the help of the mysteriously dark Gaff (Edward James Olmos), police chief Harry Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) recalls Deckard to help in finding and eliminating four Nexus-6 models who have arrived illegally on Earth.

Led by Batty (Rutger Hauer), Leon (Brion James), Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) are searching for a way to overcome their four-year life limit. Deckard meets Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) the main designer of the replicants, and Batty's primary target. Tyrell's latest experiment is Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant unaware of her status and injected with fake memories to help her believe that she is human. As a romance develops between Deckard and Rachael, Deckard tracks down first Zhora then Leon, but Batty and Pris find their way to J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), a genetic designer who can lead them to Tyrell.

Based on the Philip K. Dick short story Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner is working with limited source material, effectively a glorified but quite linear detective chase. Scott successfully fuses together a depressingly bleak future with basic film noir characteristics to create a memorably artistic tableau, rendering the actual plot quite secondary.

Blade Runner's dazzling achievement is a rich extrapolation of the present into a credible but horrendous future recreation of a large Earth city. The Los Angeles of 2019 is an overpopulated urban nightmare bathed in constant darkness, never-ending rain, persistently rising steam from unidentified cavities, and washed with the sickly glow of incessant, oversized neon corporate advertising. Mammoth, super-dense buildings dominate the cityscape, the population is mostly Asian, every inch of sidewalk is congested, and the police presence is pervasive in hovering "spinner" vehicles, their yellow beams of light adding to the suffocating environment. Every external scene in Blade Runner re-emphasizes this grim future, Scott making use of shadows and light to create a hallucinatory, recalibrated but frighteningly believable reality.

The film plays with several themes related to the essence of being human. The replicants are struggling against their unalterable built-in four-year life span, expressing the hopelessness of an existence that is certain of a termination date. Humans of course suffer the same certainty of death, but without knowledge of the expiration time, and the screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples questions the fairness of human-like creations, designed to express human emotions, but sabotaged in their ability to hope and dream, that most essential of human attributes. There are also puzzles related to Deckard (is he human or a replicant), and, ultimately, what does the future hold when the line between natural and man-made humans is blurred beyond obvious recognition.

With the film's appearance dominating the plot and characters, the performances are understandably subdued. Harrison Ford, looking to expand from the Star Wars universe, has little to work with, Deckard hard boiled enough but without the edge or wit afforded to classic film noir investigators. Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty emerges as the most dominant character, physically and emotionally imposing, a replicant who understands his role and fallibilities all too well. Sean Young wears the same sad and puzzled expression throughout, a not-so-fatale femme, Young as unassured about her performance as Rachael is about her humanity. Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Brion James, William Sanderson and Edward James Olmos are colourfully good fits for their bizarre surroundings, but in limited roles none can benefit from any character evolution.

Blade Runner set a new standard for what a serious science fiction film could look like, in a universe where reality is not so much newly constructed as imaginatively stretched from the more austere elements of the present. It's an enduring cinematic achievement, the routine story compensated for by a dazzling package.

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