With one Phillip K. Dick’s inspired sci-fi flick, “The Adjustment Bureau,” in theaters, I thought I’d take a look at a film based on another Dick work for this month’s column.
Many films imagine futures that are far more elaborate and interesting than any we will actually inhabit. Conceiving an interesting future has always been a movie art director’s dream; you can pepper the landscape with as many flying cars, weird outfits and funky pieces of production design as you want, all in the name of fantasy. No one actually considers whether or not these fantasies could come true — movie futures give us the freedom to dream, and that’s why they are so fun.
Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” is one exception. Scott imagines a rainy, grimy future in which humans move through overcrowded streets beneath towering skyscrapers. Pedestrians hunch down to shield themselves from the constant downpour. All around are bright neon signs and searchlights from police vehicles circling above. Whenever an interior is shown in the film, there is always a glow or ray from an outside light penetrating the environment. It’s as if the characters, even at their most private, can’t escape the chaos outside.
The society the film explores seems decadent and selfish. Humans can now explore deep space and have created a race of androids, or “replicants,” with advanced physical capacity and intelligence to serve as slave labor in space colonies.
The replicants have been engineered to pass as fully human; some, we learn, aren’t even aware that they’re not fully human. They have only been given a four-year lifespan. Their makers fear that if they have more time than this, they may actually start to fight for their own humanity.
In the film, humans are fairly disconnected from the plight of replicants. Scott portrays them as boozy, fatuous creatures, numbing the pain in a future that doesn’t seem to hold much hope for anyone. The film’s hero, Deckard (Harrison Ford), is a dreary loner, wandering the wet streets after dark, resigned to the sadness of it all. Going home to his lavish apartment, he drinks booze endlessly, killing the hours before the day begins again.
Deckard is a blade runner, a detective who hunts down replicants that have stepped out of line. As the film opens, four have escaped from a distant colony and trekked back to Earth. They are the volatile Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), blond and intimidating Pris (Daryl Hannah), his naïve counterpart, the aggressive, confident Zora (Joanna Cassidy) and Leon (Brion James), a mechanical thug. Deckard starts investigating their whereabouts, combing the seedy bars and nightspots of the underworld to locate them. Once he finds them, his orders are to dispose of them.
The film is basically a slow, methodical detective story, told with the assurance of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. But Scott also examines Deckard’s moral consideration of replicants. His most important connection is with Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant he falls in love in his investigation. Their romance forces him to consider the implications of constructing replicants and the way humans use them.
By considering their humanity, Deckard starts to understand his own more deeply.
“Blade Runner” has had a troubled history since its completion in 1982. The
film’s financiers thought Scott’s final cut would be inaccessible to audiences, so they suggested Ford record voiceover narration to clarify the film’s themes. I’ve only seen the original cut of “Blade Runner” in bits and pieces, but the narration robs the film of any kind of power. It’s a tedious, simplistic consideration of complex themes, something that leaves nothing for an audience member to figure out on their own.
When Scott released his director’s cut years later, the first thing he did was remove the narration, and the difference in the two versions is startling. What once seemed tedious and silly with voiceover was now profound and elegant without. So much of the film’s power is bound up in the strength of its ideas, which didn’t feel properly explored with voiceover.
Looking at the film today, its influence on sci-fi films that came in its wake is hard to miss. It’s difficult to imagine films like “Dark City” or “The Matrix” looking quite as good without the influence of “Blade Runner.” That being said, Scott’s film owes just as much to films like “Metropolis” or “The Last Laugh,” silent classics that created worlds built out of ominous cityscapes and dark alleyways. Working from the influence of those films, Scott creates a moody, penetrating landscape that instills dread in the mind of the viewer.
The film’s screenplay, adapted by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples from the story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Dick, is intelligent in the way it examines the story’s human issues. Deckard never bluntly discusses the human implications of the story, but his consideration of them is laid in with subtlety. There are never any huge philosophical conversations in the film, and that is just as well, because it leaves the viewer to consider the film’s complexity on their own. It’s surprising how emotionally affecting the film becomes; by taking such a restrained approach, Fancher and People let the story’s deeper meanings creep up on you.
Scott takes the same restrained approach in directing the film. Like “Alien,” the film he made before this one, “Blade Runner” is slow and deliberate, methodically moving from one scene to another. The film is sparse on dialogue at times, fixing your attention on the words that are actually spoken. The restraint of the storytelling gives the film a hypnotic quality; you’re never sure what will happen next and you know you don’t want to miss it.
Watching the film today, I appreciate it in the same way I do Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”; it’s not a film you sit down and watch easily, but when you do, its size and originality are enough to overpower you. Films like these are the ones that open up your mind and force you to consider things in different ways.
Reach Dennis O’Neil at 270-887-3237 or email@example.com.