Thursday, October 5, 2017

But then again, who does?


The great sci-fi allegory about God and man, or at least—since there are an awful lot of them—one of the greats.

Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples (based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick)
With Harrison Ford (Deckard), Sean Young (Rachael), Edward James Olmos (Gaff), William Sanderson (J.F. Sebastian), Joanna Cassidy (Zhora), Brion James (Leon), Daryl Hannah (Pris), and Rutger Hauer (Roy Batty)

Spoiler alert: I want more life, fucker

My only objections to Blade Runner are, for the most part, conceptual, which might seem like a funny thing to say, since the conceptual underpinning of Blade Runner is the biggest reason for its status; and while none of those conceptual objections really stand in the way of it being director Ridley Scott's masterpiece (perhaps Scott's only masterpiece), you do wonder if it did have to be so messy, especially on your twentieth time around.  The answer is: yes, it kind of did.

But, first things first, and let's dispense immediately with the tedious housekeeping: I don't know if I've ever seen Blade Runner's original theatrical cut—that is, the one with the disfavored voiceover narration and a studio-mandated eagerness to quash not just Scott's preferred twist ending, but also the blunt brevity of its philosophically-pessimistic denouement.  (Or, you know.  Its soul.)  So if I did ever see it (and I do have vague memories of Harrison Ford talking, a comparatively rare occurrence in the other cuts, so maybe I even did), it must have been years ago, and given that secondhand knowledge of its differences is readily available, and since those differences also appear to be uniformly bad, I've made precisely zero effort to see it since.  As such, this review deals with the 1992 Director's Cut and 2007 Final Cut: both voiceover-free, both with their unicorns returned to their rightful place, and neither one closing out with leftover footage from The motherfucking Shining.  We can say, then, that they have no meaningful story distinction between them.  (Though the Final Cut looks different, thanks to a generous amount of digital color correction, along with various semi-subtle CGI fixes to the film's old-school effects.)

That story, of course, is surely well-known enough that I could avoid retelling it, if I wished.  Nonetheless, a refresher might be worth our while: in 2019, with a world verging on ecological collapse, biotechnology has advanced, and allowed the immaculate conception of a race of genetically engineered humanoids called Replicants.  Born as slaves, the bulk of them have been sent off-world, serving their corporate masters in every conceivable role, from laborer, to soldier, to plaything.  It is from one of these off-world colonies that five Replicants (reduced to four, offscreen) return to the planet that bred them, led by a commando, "Roy Batty."  They have been consumed by their need to reach their creator, Tyrell, the only man on Earth (if there be any man at all) who might be able to fix the deadly flaw built into their design: the four year lifespan Tyrell conceived as a "fail-safe" that would forever keep Replicants from challenging the supremacy of humankind.  It's easy to see how any rogue Replicant could be a problem under these circumstances—stronger than humans, faster than humans, and with nothing whatsoever to lose—and hence law enforcement has commissioned certain agents, called "Blade Runners," whose task it is to hunt down such Replicants and "retire" them.  One of these cops is Deckard, presently dragooned back into the service of the LAPD and given the mission nobody else wants: find Roy and his followers, and kill them all.

There is, obviously, nothing wrong with Blade Runner in this synopsis.  The only possible exception is in the term "Blade Runner" itself, a meaningless nothing which I still personally elect to find at least as evocative as it is cool to say aloud.

Which I have not done in a "funny" Chinese accent since the 90s, though, God help me, I'm pretty sure I did it back then.

Of course, it helps my synopsis that I didn't simply copy Blade Runner's own introductory text.  That text might be splendidly florid (it truly is), but it does, unfortunately, turn out to be obscenely unaware that there's any kind of distinction to be made between "robots" and "genetically-engineered organisms."  Well, at least that's easy enough to forgive, as the film itself thankfully doesn't share the same quantity of dumbassed befuddlement on this point.

But you can still see what I mean: the devil's in the details here.  Blade Runner might be ground zero for any argument for Ridley Scott, the Noble (and Ennobled) Auteur; yet there's something to be said for its similarity to the film he made Blade Runner on the back of, Alien, which had already demonstrated Scott's notable disdain for complete sensemaking in favor of his then-preferred mode of striking an abiding visual mood—that is, of overwhelming, transportive cinema.

So don't let me bury that lede too deep!  I just reckoned it went without saying that Scott's modern Metropolis is also one of the most influential and most superlative pieces of design-on-film there ever was—remaking Earthbound science fiction in its own image as completely as Star Wars remade space opera in its, just five years earlier.  (Truthfully, Blade Runner's tendrils reach even further than just its own genre: something like Seven owes at least as much to the used-up-future of 2019 as it does anything else.)

Then again, that's the ordinary objection to Blade Runner: it's all mood, and one great ending, and a whole lot of slow-going to get there.

But, no, let's not punish Scott for the wonderfully methodical pace of his picture, which fairly throbs with tension before finally releasing it, because it would still be far from boring, anyway.  After all, just look at it: there's not one single shot in Blade Runner that doesn't bear the indelible fingerprints of its murderer's row of talented artists, ranging from DP Jordan Cronenweth to practical effects maestro Douglas Trumbull to conceptual artist Syd Meade to production designer Lawrence Paull—and beyond.  Nor is there a single shot that isn't extraordinarily fussed-over in terms of what its elements say about the world it creates.  (And whatever other problems I have with Blade Runner's script, the one thing it does exceptionally well is allude to so many details of Blade Runner's universe without ever dully explicating them: for instance, we know that the Earth is on the brink of environmental destruction in Blade Runner, but how do we know?  We know because of the screenplay's stray implications of mass extinction and interplanetary exodus interweave with the way that Paull's L.A. hellscape demand we recognize that this apocalypse must reach far beyond the limits of the frame.)

Scott marshalls his images to make you believe utterly in the physical and social reality of what you're watching.  That's true even when what you're watching is frankly phantasmogoric: ziggurats dwarfing the pyramids of Egypt, squatting upon an Angeleno cityscape hazed into a nightmarish obscurity of pollution; filthy streets choked with poisoned humanity; airships crassly advertising the off-world colonies as the only possible means of escape; building-sized geisha pitchwomen; the confidante of a billionaire, demonstrably wealthy in his own right, and still living in the literally-rotting ruins of an abandoned hotel; and all of it bound together by Vangelis' mournful score, an electronic elegy for the race.

Flying cars notwithstanding, Blade Runner does look how I expect 2019 to feel.

But in spite of the evidence of our eyes and ears, the literalist must find himself rankled, for as much as Paull et al's design of Blade Runner's teeming and tangible spaces is possibly the greatest triumph of American Expressionism since The Phantom of the Opera, its most remarkable success has always been the way it's kept its audience from asking the wrong kind of questions about the world they see.

Meanwhile, you've surely noticed my omission.  That plot summary above doesn't even mention the film's third-most important character and Deckard's love interest, Rachael, the latest word in Replicant technology, who, having been created with built-in memories as an anchor for her identity, isn't even initially aware that she's a Replicant at all.

Obviously, I didn't mention Rachael not because she isn't important, because she's vital.  (And Sean Young offers perhaps the film's second-best performance in the role—a collection of poses and wounded looks, perhaps, but an absolutely essential, and sometimes even heartbreaking, collection of poses and wounded looks.)  Rather, then, it's because Rachael's thrown into the mix for no reason that you could honestly describe as organic to the actual plot: Deckard, our allegedly-expert Replicant Hunter, is sent to the Tyrell Corporation to research this new-model Nexus 6, and God alone knows what he was even supposed to have learned from this encounter, except that it's necessary for a hero to have a heroic awakening, and certainly Sean Young makes as good a starting point for personal growth as any.

But calling Rachael's subplot slightly clumsy already requires bearing down hard upon the structure of Blade Runner's screenplay, and long before you can get to that, there's a host of piddlier issues.  After all, Blade Runner's simply replete with things that just don't quite add up, from tiny plot holes (the fantastic "let me tell you about my mother!" interview at Tyrell Corp becomes dubious in light of the fact that the LAPD has photos of these murderous Replicants), to the Voight-Kampf test in general (it's marvelous verbal surrealism, but in a world where street vendors have electron microscopes, the best way they have to identify a Replicant is to ask them about their mom?), all the way up to a fair number of legitimately medium-sized logical gaffes (or Gaffs, even—because it's like nobody has ever noticed that all the various forms of blade running and one-man slaughterhousing displayed in this movie only ever amount to one outrageously inefficient way to hunt down rogue Replicants, bearing no relationship to either real-world police work, or even to the fundamental deductive skills you'd expect from any screen detective).

I mean, think about that: this is a movie where the LAPD's inability to so much as guess at Roy's motivations allows a billionaire to die, and when they chase the super-perp to his obvious hideout, their tactical response unit consists of one guy.

Despite Blade Runner's noirish pretensions, then—indeed, despite its iconic (and frankly tedious!) photo enhancement sequence—there just ain't a lot of detective work worthy of the name going on here, and it's only by virtue of that persistent fan theory, confirmed by Scott's preferred cuts, that the LAPD's aggressively negligent approach can be considered anything like a strength.  This brings up the elephant you saw in the corner when you came in, so let's just deal with it now: is Deckard a Replicant?  In the Director's and Final Cuts, the answer is "obviously, stupid."  And now we're groping our way toward what makes Blade Runner more than just a showcase for amazing visual world-building.

You'll find folks who say it doesn't matter: what matters is whether it makes any difference.  What's fascinating is the ambiguity itself.  I tend to agree, in principle, with the first part; as for the second, I can't help but be disappointed in people who seem like they ought to be smart, but who then use the word "ambiguity" as a synonym for the way Scott silently but very explicitly flat-out tells us what Deckard is.  (Not to say they're idiots, only that it takes one special pigheadedness to read that hard against the grain.  I surmise it has a great deal to do with the fact of the theatrical cut's continued existence, for that cut permits one to entertain a kind of Trinitarian, "man, yet not man" superposition, one's appreciation of Deckard's true nature capable of being suspended until one refers to a specific iteration of Blade Runner's evolving text.)

Myself, I've always been of the opinion that Deckard's genetically-engineered status fairly defines it.  Aside from being merely cool—for it is, whatever else, one of cinema's best mindfucks—it also cuts more deeply into one of Blade Runner's two big themes, that is, the one we'd extract from any tale of fantastic racism that asks what it means to be human, and (more to the point) why we're so eager to deny humanity to someone else even in spite of vocal protestations to the contrary.  It is important, after all, that neither Deckard nor Roy know the truth when it might have mattered; yet there is something perverse—and recognizable—about the way the system sets one slave to catch another.

But more than that, it turns something I once found almost lazy about Blade Runner's speculative scaffolding into the single sharpest argument it brings to bear: for the point of Blade Runner, or at least one of its points, is that it doesn't ever actually ask if its Replicants are human, because it knows it doesn't need to.  They're obviously human.  It's only an arbitrary distinction (punched up, to be fair, with the occasional sci-fi shenanigan) that even gives the very word "Replicant" any objective meaning.  It's a joke, if a blackly hilarious one—Blade Runner intuits that "being human," as much as anything might, means dehumanizing anyone else whenever it's expedient.  They're so obviously human, I said, and it's no accident that the most emotive and sympathetic being in this world is Roy Batty himself, despite the many "questionable things" he's done, including the questionable things we've seen him do.  Now, it's easy to sympathize with a slave living in a world he never made; but that isn't all Blade Runner does.  To attribute Roy's blatant humanity to the screenplay alone, then, would be to unfairly deny the credit due its first-best performer.

I certainly don't depart from the conventional wisdom here, then: I couldn't possibly mean anyone else other than Rutger Hauer.  It's his soul and specificity as Roy that give Blade Runner the resonance that nobody could say entirely existed on the page, just waiting to be given life by anyone.  It's in Hauer's exaggeration of Roy's emotions, and the strange and discontinuous jumps he makes while shifting between them—the way Hauer always lets us see Roy process things, as if constantly figuring out, right there in the moment, exactly how his face is supposed to react to any given stimulus.  To a lesser extent, the same can be said of Brion James' Leon and Darryl Hannah's Pris, too.  (It cannot be said, I'm afraid, of Joanna Cassidy's Zhora; but then, Blade Runner and its director rather expressly don't care about Zhora as anything other than a prop to be flung through panes of glass in melancholy slow motion.)

But it is Hauer, after all, who gets all the moments to shine, and he plays them to perfection—which is to say, he plays them explicitly as the precocious toddler Roy actually is, who has recently come to perceive the inequity of his existence, but only just in time for him to die.  It's a performance so perfect that "attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion" sounds earnestly meaningful, even though it's really just pulp grandeur.  It's a performance so perfect that even Scott's most laughably overreaching gesture—an egregiously symbolic dove that takes flight at the very moment of Roy Batty's death—becomes an act planted firmly within Roy's character, thanks to a shot that shows that he's caught the poor thing, in order to make that gesture himself.  Above all, it's a performance so perfect that the moment Roy rescues Deckard—after a whole lifetime spent suffering at the hands of men like him—winds up, in some sense, as inevitable as the Nazarene sacrifice Roy is so deliberately trying to recreate.

So here we find the final thread of Blade Runner, which truly does grapple hard with what "being human" is supposed to mean—not in moral terms, but mortal ones.  Again, one might object—it seems like an awful lot of wasted capital, just to create a tool that'll only last four years, and even then, only if it doesn't kill you first—but, once again, we're not dealing with a movie that cares overmuch about realism (let alone sound corporate strategy).  It grounds itself, instead, in naked atheistic rage—and is there any better cinematic representation of humanity's justified and fruitless anger at its imagined creator than Roy's bloody destruction of his "father" Tyrell, the weakling deity he found sitting atop the temple at the nexus of heaven and earth, neither willing nor able to live up to the standards his creation has imposed upon him?

In the end, Replicants are nothing but an argument to absurdity for the stark facts of any human existence.  Like them, we too are creatures of an eternal present, with neither a future that we can grasp, nor a past to truly call our own.  (For what are memories?  Not more than photographs, only our present impressions of some other person that, perhaps, we used to be.)  Like them, we too were born, and we'll die, and in the meantime we'll suffer; and so it is correct to be angry with our creators, though it is also pointless.  Deckard learns two things on that rooftop with Roy: the first, of course, was that he too has done many questionable things; the second, is that he too burns brightly, but likewise not forever.  (It is in this instant, in the one shot of Ford's face as he contemplates his lessons, that Blade Runner's star achieves anything like the same measure of greatness as his co-lead.)

Thirty-five years on, we know that Ridley Scott is perhaps the most fatalist of all the great populist directors; it would be hard to name any other filmmaker at his level of funding whose works are stained with such rampant morbidity, to the extent that it's probably accurate enough to suggest that the man is a nihilist at heart.  (Hey, it would at least explain why he's never given much of a shit about his screenplays.)

Yet the final moments of Blade Runner are not half as punishing as everything that's come before—let alone as bleak as Scott's late-career return to that whole God thing, in his Alien prequels Prometheus and Covenant.  Instead, here, there's hope.  For there is mercy in Blade Runner—from Replicant and human alike, as mysterious, and miraculous, as any of those unfulfilled promises of divine salvation.  It's too bad she won't live.  Yes: but for his sins, Deckard and Rachael are at least given the opportunity to try.  That is a kind of salvation, and, as it's the only salvation anyone could ever hope for, it shall have to be enough.

Score:  10/10

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