What’s the Big Deal with ‘Blade Runner’?

ON

The end of the film is both gruesome and sentimental. Mr. Scott can’t have it both ways, any more than he can expect overdecoration to carry a film that has neither strong characters nor a strong story. That hasn’t stopped him from trying, even if it perhaps should have.

~ Janet Maslin New York Times

Blade Runner doesn’t engage you directly; it forces passivity on you. It sets you down in this lopsided maze of a city, with its post-human feeling, and keeps you persuaded that something bad is about to happen. Some the scenes seem to have six subtexts but no text, and no context either. There are suggestions of Nicolas Roeg in the odd, premonitory atmosphere, but Roeg gives promise of something perversely sexual. With Scott, it’s just something unpleasant or ugly.

~ Pauline Kael, New Yorker [link]

For director Ridley Scott…the greater challenge seemed to be creating that future world. Scott is a master of production design, of imagining other worlds of the future (Alien) and the past (The Duellists). He seems more concerned with creating his film worlds than populating them with plausible characters, and that’s the trouble this time. Blade Runner is a stunningly interesting visual achievement, but a failure as a story.

~ Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (1982), collected in the book Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion (1990) [link]

Strangely, none of those quotes are included on the Rotten Tomatoes page for Blade Runner, as Ebert is seen on that page giving the film a “Fresh” rating and the well known reviews by Maslin and Kael aren’t even included. So, when only a few days before Christmas I received the HD DVD edition of the Blade Runner: 5-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition I was only equipped with knowing that 91% of critics disagreed with me on the quality of this film. Of course, RT is only carrying reviews for the 1992 Director’s Cut, and while I will say it is better than the original, it isn’t “Certified Fresh” better. The new box set from Warner Bros., however, is just about as impressive as it gets, as it boasts five different versions of the film including what is reportedly director Ridley Scott’s Final Cut.

I recently saw Blade Runner: The Final Cut in theaters and it just so happened to be the very first time I had ever seen the film. It was presented in all its digital glory and once again Ridley Scott impressed the hell out of me with his production design and his overall ability to make a film look cool as hell. However, I was bored stiff. I have always heard rumblings about how good Blade Runner is, and blah, blah, blah, only to see this definitive version and wonder where the hell the story went.

So, when this set, dressed in its silver Deckard Briefcase packaging, arrived I was wondering how exactly I was going to review it. First off, watching five different versions of the film, listening to four separate commentaries and then watching over nine hours of special features just wasn’t going to happen. I already knew I wasn’t a fan of the film, or at least could be described as someone that needed to be convinced as to why it was a good film, so I set out to do a little studying.

I started with the Workprint on disc five and meandered through that and its commentary with Paul M. Sammon, author of “Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner“. I then went and watched, in succession, the original U.S. release, the original International Release and then the 1992 Director’s Cut. This is where I began asking myself, How could anyone actually like this film?

For those that don’t know what Blade Runner is about let me tell yah. The year is 2019 and a small group of android beings called Replicants have escaped their “Off World” home and are expected to be headed back to Earth. They are considered highly dangerous and must be terminated. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, an ex-blade runner (a.k.a. Replicant hunter) and he is called out of retirement to hunt them down.

First off, I am surprised the original theatrical release didn’t get laughed out of existence. The TERRIBLE voice over by Harrison Ford, rumored to be bad because Ford didn’t like the lines, but I am more apt to say he tried doing it in character and it failed so an excuse was made up, is laughably bad. The voice over is bad not only because of how it is read, but for what it is saying. It is equivalent to showing a man walking down the street and a voice over of said man saying, “I am walking down the street.”

Next there is Daryl Hannah , an actress whose greatest accomplishment was winning the Razzie Award in 1988 for her performance in Wall Street. Hannah, playing a “Pleasure Model” Replicant, is once again laughably bad as she sports her pale white skin and a stupid looking black band of makeup across her eyes (is that what passes for sexy in 2019?). Just as much as she mucked up Wall Street she appears in Blade Runner as a Replicant that is supposed to be attractive, but couldn’t be further from it, not only in appearance but in performance. I am happy Hollywood wised up and realized this girl can’t act, because any more performances like this and the whole industry may have gone under.

Target practice continues with a movie score I just can’t get onboard with. Ridley disagrees with me in his commentary saying he believes that the Vangelis score for his film is one of the best he has ever heard and that it still stands up 25 years later. As I watch and hear those ridiculous chords playing over scenes of massive futuristic landscapes I want to tug on my ears.

Now we have the ending. I understand it has been changed since the original release, and changed for the better, but the happy-happy joy-joy ending to the original release is so bad that I couldn’t possibly imagine people walking out of a theater and recommending this film to anyone. This is where I am left to wonder how this film has a life outside of 1982. As an experiment in filmmaking it is interesting, but why did Warner Bros. feel the need to finance the mad scientist? I love Ridley Scott, but this film simply missed the mark.

On top of all this, we have a story that starts and never goes anywhere. What was the point of watching this? Is it the pretty images? It’s definitely not Sean Young’s wooden performance as Rachael and the entirely unconvincing plot thread in which Deckard falls in love with her. If it took a unicorn dream and an origami horsey to get folks believing Deckard was a Replicant then they obviously didn’t catch on to his wooden acting or the mere fact that he fell in love with a mannequin. Of course, the voice over was added so people could understand what was going on and the final scene was tacked on to send people home with a shock of cinematic happy-heroin, so I guess I shouldn’t prey too hard on their intelligence.

Trying to figure out the love for this film is just about as hard as listening to Ridley Scott talk about it. From his commentary on the Final Cut:

Us witnessing a Replicant becoming as human as a human, and not more human than a human, but as human as a human by finding not only did he have built in memories, which is what we are being told about by Tyrell and later by Deckard, who reinstates that with her by saying, “They’re not your memories.” So we can assume that Roy Battie, as being a very sophisticated Nexus 6, or whatever he is, has private thoughts and if you feed enough information into a computer, then the romantic notion is, at what moment does a computer start to have its own feelings? Okay?

Uh, not okay Ridley. For me to actually believe that these wooden “stick figures” had feelings is too much of a stretch for me. I also don’t see how I would assume that by simply feeding information into a computer is going to ultimately allow it to have feelings. Ridley later on compares it to teaching a computer to play chess and how by giving it instincts we are ultimately giving it feelings. No, you’re not. If my computer had instincts it would have punched me when I installed Windows Vista.

I am willing to concede that Blade Runner is visually on par with pretty much anything out there now. The Final Cut looks like it could have been made yesterday, outside of the wildly ’80s-like costumes. I will also say that fans of the film need do only one thing, buy this set. This is a Blade Runner fan’s wet dream. Hell, I don’t even like the film and I would never consider giving away this set. However, when it comes to the actual entertainment value of the film it is very low. As entertained as I was trying to figure out why people like it, I suffered through the hours I spent watching it.

I was initially kick-started into writing this article after reading Stephen Metcalf’s take on it over at Slate, to which he pointed out two of the critic quotes I used at the beginning of this article. He also points out that Blade Runner is the 97th best film of all time, according to the American Film Institute, and the Guardian has called it the best science-fiction film ever made. I just don’t get it.

Before each version of the film on this DVD set Ridley has a short introduction to what you are going to see and how it is different. Prior to The Final Cut he says, “Out of all the versions of Blade Runner, this is my favorite. I hope you agree.”

Sorry, I don’t agree Ridley, but I am sure there are legions of fans out there that will, and those of you that love this film as much as Warner Bros. is hoping you do I couldn’t recommend this set any more highly. It truly is an exceptional package. Buy it now from Amazon.