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Blade Runner (1982)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998

A genre defining film, Blade Runner attaches a compelling, strangely humanistic detective story to its deeply dysphoric outlook for civilisation. In the year 2019 humanity has expanded far beyond the Earth, engaged in the eternal quest for new frontiers. Those left behind are too old, infirm, poor or stubborn to escape for the off-world colonies; they're stuck with the dregs of civilisation, as represented by a gloomy, rain-sodden Los Angeles. The only flies in the ointment are artificial humans, colloquially known as replicants, deployed in the most hazardous of environments. In their latest incarnation, Nexus 6, these replicants have surpassed their makers, a moment of transition.

On Earth rogue replicants are outlawed, a hazard that demands execution. So when a replicant unit is discovered in LA, the police assign their blade runner division to the clean-up operation. It seems that they're trying to infiltrate the Tyrell Corporation, the monolithic entity that built them, presided over by genius Eldon Tyrell (Joseph Turrkel). Holden (Morgan Paull), the first operative assigned, uncovers Leon Kowalski (Brion James) but gets shot in the process. Thus Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) gets dragged out of partial retirement by his ex-boss Captain Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) and essentially blackmailed into taking up the chase. They just can't afford to leave Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) loose on the streets.

A hugely influential movie, time has neither dimmed nor diluted Blade Runner. Despite numerous rip-offs, homages, direct copies and satires, Ridley Scott's vision looks as fresh today as it did in 1982. If anything, we seem to be witnessing a rather depressing convergence between reality and fiction. The foundation of this longevity is Blade Runner's look, its atmosphere and attention to detail; this is where the film scores so highly. The very first frames, and those that follow, have such a physical impact, overloading your senses with imagination, that they burn into your cortex. In the way that Scott evokes this future, bringing it to vivid life, it's hard to see how it could have worked in any other medium. Quite simply Blade Runner is one of the most stunning examples of pure cinema ever made.

In close-up, this is a time of decay, decrepitude, trash, neon and promises of green grass; Star Wars was never like this. This is the fruit of Lawrence G. Paul's production design, working in sympathy with David L. Snyder's art design. Together the duo clamp onto the thematic strands of dim illumination, thickly packed streets and urban dissolution. If anything they seem to be recreating the Middle Ages, a regressive setting where the have and have-not gulf is unbridgeable. At ground level a mostly oriental population swarms through street markets, adjacent to but separate from the oppressive skyscrapers. These sets are just wonderful, fantastic in their complexity and completeness, an extrapolation of the now without becoming entirely alien.

Yet this concentration on the immediate, obvious strengths of Blade Runner tends to ignore its hidden cogs and gears; namely the script, cast, acting and direction. Transforming almost beyond recognition Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples use his ideas as a philosophical launching pad. In the war between human and non-human, both sides pose the same global questions; who am I, where am I going, how long have I got to live? This being the case, the line of separation becomes fuzzy, blurred and indistinct, leading one to consider the essence of humanity. Memories? Sentience? Does it matter if these are artificial? Basically, can one human be constructed by another human? Mind stretching material, with the bonus of a detective story loaded on top, one man tracing a trail of clues.

Blade Runner's cast members, a surprisingly small number given the crowds, perform well in response to the resonant script. All provide low-key interpretations, exactly what the film demands; emotionally underdeveloped humans and replicants make up the bulk of the cast, hence their reactions are primitive and tentative. In this context Ford is superlative, weary and unimpressed by the vortex whistling around him. His love interest, Sean Young as Rachael, portrays innocence and vulnerability adequately, while the rest of the replicant actors fit their roles well. Hauer is, however, by far the most captivating, becoming charismatic via lyricism, memorable lines ("That's the spirit!") and a desperate love of life.

In directing his characters, Scott successfully juggles numerous balls; only rarely does the environment overpower them. An achievement worthy of note when you consider the almost immoral closeness of Richard Hart's lighting and Jordan Cronenweth's photography. Together they weave fabulous eye-candy; shafts of silver caught in hanging dust, sepia tones and stars brought to ground in the sparkle of city lights. Cronenweth not only captures this beauty, he frames the characters and story in an utterly stunning fashion. All are part of the warmly symbiotic whole, a mood enhanced by Vangelis' outstanding score. In the way that he moves from the vast to the intimate, snaring the strangeness of this metropolis without leaping entirely into the unknown, Vangelis may have created one of the best ever soundtracks.

Culminating in a monstrous, violent, affecting and magnificent finale, Blade Runner stands shoulder to shoulder with the most ambiguous and visionary of films. An incredible experience on every level, though the impact is undeniably diminished on video, Scott's scarily prophetic tale appreciates substantially with repeat viewing. Even for those who ordinarily shy from science fiction, this is a must-see movie.

This film was nominated for review by Kathryn Flynn.

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