Ridley Scott’s dystopic sci-fi classic is a stunning piece of cinema that, along with Alien, has combined to earn the director enough cachet to overlook two future blunders. Far from a masterpiece, a term I’m loath to use, it’s a dazzling melange of ambience and a compelling futuristic science fiction set-up under a familiar nourish guise. A strange and consistent dark mood—a pervasive nocturnal melancholy—lingers, whereby its simmering tension feels almost secondary and ambient. Its synth-heavy score, courtesy of Vangelis’ genius in composition and arrangement, is evocative of high and low places. It is in turns, grandiose and ceremonial; jazzy, soulful and contemplative. One number is elegiac, perhaps in lament for of perhaps a bygone norm like the nuclear family curiously absent form the story’s world. In short, its soundscapes and visual tapestry are otherworldly. And more importantly, its noir premise seeks one form of truth, and stumbles entirely upon another. Leave no rock unturned in that pursuit of you so choose, but do not feign bewilderment when it turns up in disappointment.
And an opening scrolling-screen caption dispenses nearly all the required exposition whereby an oppressive sense of foreboding is all that remains to captivate attention. Seldom is an overt choice so economical and effective. Frankly, little else was needed to capture the imagination. Fittingly, it is oppressive all throughout to go along with the class conflict at the heart of the film. In its dystopian backdrop, 2019 Los Angeles has never felt this distant in 1982, nor at the time of publication of Philip K. Dick’s source novel in 1968. Yet the proximity is simultaneously visible by how the two timeframes (only 52 years between novel and film’s setting) span less than the average human life expectancy. It feels we should have come some way in technological advancement over that window but not to the tune of robotics and full-blown cloning that now sees four iterations of the Nexus-6 model rebel against their human makers and make their way to earth. Left out of the movie is the catalyst that spurred humanity to conceive of a utility from these robots, known as Replicants, but their status as a slave caste on Off-world colonies is clearly captioned.
In walks Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, a jaded Blade Runner (bounty hunter) called from semi-retirement to chase down the escapees. This expository nugget is succinct and occurs over brief but tense follow-up scenes. The villains are on the loose and the true nature of their motivations is murky. The smoldering tension is a marvel that pairs well with the darkened sets. Menace threatens to leap out of stark shadows cast by cramped nooks and under kitchen overhangs. Searing lights beam intermittently into dingy interiors in a hellish rhythm. Eventually we learn the defectors want more time on their four-year lifespan; a fail-safe presciely against what they’re on the run for. And while Deckard ponders the next lead, audiences are kept wondering just how shifty are the Replicants if they made it back to earth. And if pushed into a corner, would they assume a retaliatory or a predatory stance?
To ameliorate the dread, as Deckard is sent to the Tyrrell Corporation, flourishes of the film’s rarer splendors replace the decay of the earlier scenes. We’re inside one of a pair of mammoth edifices that jut out of the horizon in several establishing shots. By which point everything suggested in Blade Runner‘s more prominent posters was thoroughly obliterated as the promise of shootouts with futuristic gadgets is dashed. While there, Deckard administers a test (Voight-Kampff) on one of their advanced models, Rachael (Sean Young). Where two dozen questions would suffice—Leon only makes it through one before turning postal—Rachael’s required a hundred before Deckard could determine she’s a Replicant.
The four rogue machines encompass both sexes and serve either combat or pleasure application. Leon (Brion James), Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and Pris (Daryl Hannah). Their physical prowess is impressive and frighteningly explicit that there is a payoff to seeing it in action after prolonged anticipation and tense showdowns. The film presents these encounters with little preamble that enhances the minimalist exposition and its ‘in media res’ qualities. Less is more. There is also the exploitative moment of Deckard throwing himself on Rachael that borders on sexual grooming. If androids can dream, could they comprehend consent?
Elsewhere, the city is cramped underneath a canopy of overhead train platforms and an impressive cluster of towering skyscrapers. Diverse immigrants crowd grimey sidewalks and storefronts, almost all of whom are bedecked in rain coats and head coverings. This constant downpour is a sight replicated in Se7en. It’s a scene that, beside the neon signs and overcrowding, is so drab, lifeless, and monotone. A bustle and destitution so removed from the opulence and tranquility seen at Tyrrell’s offices a hundred floors above. Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto captured similar juxtapositions of its class conflict evident from the disconnect between ground-level pandemonium and ivory towers. Here, they’re rather masked by this disconnect. And the two structures scene earlier resemble modern ziggurat or sleek replicas of Mayan step pyramids.
Nothing exemplifies this divide more than a correspondence chess game played between Tyrrell himself and disabled handyman JF Sebastian, a replicant parts maker living in the slums. It’s a decrepit building he keeps all to himself, whose exteriors belong to the historic Bradbury. It’s also where Deckard and the remaining Replicants converge on during the film’s climax. It’s a surreal location, and a hallmark of the film’s immersive set design (the illusion of expansive exteriors is maintained through close-ups that obscure an efficient exterior set made up of just three streets and two intersections). A life-size dollhouse for the uncanny and lifelike alike, what with the discarded parts, Oompa-Loompa elves roaming the halls, and profane imitations of the human form built by the lone tenant.
Here, Blade Runner [and its world] proves singular in its conception. Its philosophy continues to divide interpretation (I don’t subscribe to the theory that undermines Batty’s epiphany). But the disturbing moments it conceives are freakishly original. Pris thrashing before she dies is one such instant of the grotesque vision and divergence from known human form. And getting that close to death is one hell of a way to tell human and machine apart. Then again, that’s also only if you were a Blade Runner. It is a discovery rendered in sharp relief that Deckard is propelled toward as the credits approach, none more so than in its famous last words. And speaking of endings, who can deny that the final moments of Eyes Wide Shut were not a re-staging of Blade Runner‘s? The Venetian mask? The origami? Bill returning to Alice, and Deckard to Rachael, after a heavy ordeal? The women both oblivious to one truth while complicit in another?
Sometimes rowdy, sometimes pouty.