Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”, whose “Final Cut” version is currently being shown in South Korean theaters, has firmly occupied its own space in the movie history for its unforgettable futuristic city, which is one of the best cases to be compared to Fritz Lang’s great silent film “Metropolis” (1927). I must confess that I still see lots of plot holes and problems here and there in the story, and I also think the movie does not go deep that into its ever-intriguing matters of identity and humanity, but we can all admit now that it has always been timeless for those awesome visual details observed here and there in its vivid and impressive futuristic background.
The main background of the film is Los Angeles in 2019, which, considering it is 2023 now, looks more like a SF fantasy world to us as a colorfully messy mixture of past, present, and future. While the city in the movie is pretty unrecognizable to us as filled with lots of towering buildings under the dark, gloomy, and polluted sky, its streets and alleys are filled with big video billboards and shiny neon signs just like many modern cities of the 2020s of our world, but there are lots of shabbiness around every corner of this city with constant doses of heavy rain, as reflected by one key scene set in a big crowded marker area filled with various kinds of languages and ethnicities. Although there are lots of flying vehicles in the sky, the computer technologies in the film look now visibly retrograde, and they look much more dated compared even to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), which I happened to watch right after “Blade Runner” at a local theater.
At the beginning of the film, the screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, tells us a bit about “Replicants”, though it is often murky about what Replicants exactly are or how they are produced. Are they just biogenetically enhanced humanoids or actually robots with flesh and bone? All we can be sure about them is that 1) they are superior to human beings in many aspects, but 2) their lifespan is somehow limited to around 4 years, and 3) that is the main reason why a small group of Replicants led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) sneaked into the Earth. Well aware of their impending mortality, these Replicants are quite determined to find any possible way for living longer, but that is not approved by the authorities on the Earth or a big powerful company which has made them and many other Replicants out there.
The authorities on the Earth have their own squad to handle those runaway replicants. They are called, yes, “Blade Runners”, and Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is one of them. Although he is officially retired, he is virtually forced to work again just because he was one of the best ones to track down and “retire” Replicants, but I must point out that he is not that smart or resourceful as far as I can see. Sure, he studiously keeps chasing throughout the film, but he seems to be in a situation way over head more than once. In the other words, he is no more than your average hard-boiled detective hero mired in constant anxiety and confusion, who comes with the territory in any kind of urbane noir flick.
Speaking of noir films, the story is surely shrouded in more darkness and murkiness than it is suggested by the moody landscapes of its city background. It looks like Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the CEO of that powerful Replicant company, has some secret plan behind his coldly benevolent appearance, and he shows something quite unexpected to Deckard via his secretary Rachel (Sean Young), who has had no idea about her true identity because of the implanted memories of her “past”. There is a sad, poignant scene where she visits Deckard for desperately proving her ‘humanity’, and that leads us to that longtime question surrounding Deckard: Is he also a Replicant just like her?
The movie doles out that interesting possibility along the story. During one early scene, Deckard’s boss, who is played M. Emmet Walsh with his usual sleazy aura, says that six Replicants escaped to the Earth but two of them subsequently got killed later. It is quite possible that one of those supposedly eliminated Replicant was Deckard, and you may wonder more about whether there is any connection between Deckard’s seemingly redundant dream scene and a certain little object shown in the finale.
Anyway, as Deckard doggedly continues to look for those runaway Replicants, Scott and his crew members including cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth steadily serve us a bunch of stunning visual moments to observe and savor. I probably watched the film more than five times, but I always found myself amazed and enthralled by what Scott and his crew members so vividly and mesmerizingly achieved on the screen, and that is further accentuated by Vangelis’ electronic score, which feels a bit dated at times but still works pretty well in the context. I remember the overwhelming opening shot of the city landscape full of tall towers and buildings under the grim sky, which eventually leads to the big and imposing pyramid building which is the headquarters of Tyrell’s company. I remember how this great moment of sheer awe and grandiosity is contrasted with the shabby and melancholic lair of a young but miserable scientist who gets himself involved with those runaway Replicants later in the story. And I also remember how tragically powerful it feels to see the death of those runaway Replicants in the story, who are, ironically, the most emotional figures in the film like HAL 9000 is in “2001: A Space Odyssey”.
As Harrison Ford’s understated lead performance dutifully carries the story amid lots of stunning sights, the other main cast members including Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joe Turkel, Joanna Cassidy, James Hong, and Edward James Olmos inhabit their roles as convincingly as Ford. While Hauer makes a striking impression on us as the main antagonist of the story, Young, Hannah, and Cassidy are effective as futuristic noir female characters, and Olmos and Turkel ably suggest a lot about whatever their respective supporting characters are holding behind their back.
When it came out in the middle of 1982, “Blade Runner” unfortunately found itself overshadowed by the enormous success of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), but it has gradually occupied in many moviegoers’ conscience during next four decades, and it eventually becomes as influential as “Metropolis” and many other notable futuristic city movies ranging from Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985) to Alex Proyas’ “Dark City” (1998). In case of Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) which came out several years ago, it was certainly nice to see the extension of the futuristic world of “Blade Runner” on the screen, but that film is no more than a faithful homage to the visual greatness of “Blade Runner” as I reflect more on its equally clunky plot and thin characterization (Confession: I got myself carried away by the hyper-enthusiasm surrounding that film as writing my 3.5-star review at that time).
Despite some reservation I still have, “Blade Runner” is inarguably one of the best works from Scott, who has steadily worked during last 46 years since he debuted with “The Duelists” (1977). Although I did not like some of his films such as, yes, “Gladiator” (2000) and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014), he also gave us “Alien” (1979), “Thelma & Louise” (1991), “Black Hawk Down” (2001), and “The Martian” (2015), and it is really impressive to see this legendary British filmmaker still working as usual although he will be 86 in this year. He is surely one of the best filmmakers of our time, and I can only hope that he will keep going during several years at least.