You know the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the apes find the towering black monolith and are instantly evolved into violent, tool-and-weapon wielding man-apes? I’m beginning to believe that at some point in the 1970’s, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and a handful of others wandered into the desert in California and came across one of them. There, like the apes did with the animal bones, the filmmakers learned the secret art of using a camera to bend entire genres of film to their will.
I can think of no other explanation for what began with The Godfather in 1972 and ended 10 years later with Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, E.T., The Road Warrior, Tron, The Thing and, of course, Blade Runner. Over the course of 10 years, these hyper-evolved directors set about to remake our entire view of film. Or maybe they never intended to anything of the sort, but under the power of Kubrik’s strange Jovian artifact, simply had no other choice. Think of a genre of film. Any genre. I bet you can trace its modern inception back to that decade, with little to nothing of note added to it since.
Mob movies? Space opera? Cyberpunk? Post-apocalyptic? Horror? Action? Sword and sorcery?
It’s not that there haven’t been important movies since 1982. There have been dozens. But for a decade, giants walked the lands of southern California and gave us images we would be unable to escape even 30 years later.
I watched Blade Runner: The Final Cut last night, which is probably only the third or fourth time I’ve seen the film. But I could remember almost every major beat of the story as if I had watched it once a year, every year, since I first saw it. I knew its cityscapes and its sets. I remembered its origami and its plastic coats and its otherworldly music.
Of all the films that burnt themselves into the minds of moviegoers in those years, only Star Wars was as influencial as Blade Runner, and there’s a part of me that wonders if Blade Runner wasn’t actually the more influencial of the two. Something about Blade Runner crossed internatial boundries in a way that even Star Wars did not. Look at anime, where they not only wholeheartedly embraced Blade Runner‘s aesthetic, but latched onto its story hooks and thematic conflicts like they had been waiting for this final piece of the puzzle the whole time. Hell, Bubblegum Crisis not only used the idea of hunting down rogue robot servants, but named one of its main characters after one of Blade Runner’s replicants: Pris.
None of this is the film itself, but its legacy. But part of what makes a film a classic is the legacy it leaves, and on that bsis alone, Blade Runner is one of the great cinematic classics, the likes of which we rarely see. Is it a good movie, though?
Thankfully, yes. It is not only a visionary film but a powerful, emotional one as well. Stripped of its visuals and its music and its production design, Blade Runner is still classic science fiction. It tells the story of the consequences of making robots so human the distinction is no longer relevant while treating those creations as slaves. The humans of the world don’t even bat an eye about the preprogrammed life span limit of four years, even though the reason for it is that they are so human that if they were allowed to live longer they might gain memories and a personality of their own.
In other words, they have to die to keep them from becoming the same as us. How could you enslave something that you aren’t at least superficially different from?
The plot of Blade Runner is one of those simple science fiction plots meant to give structure to a philosophical conundrum. The meat of the story is in its questioning of humanity; specifically, what makes something human? But this is accomplished through a simple, tightly filmed investigation. Four off-world replicants have escaped and come to Earth, and a Blade Runner named Decker must find them and execute them.
No, I’m sorry, not execute. Retire.
This is one of Harrison Ford’s classic film performances, though to be fair he carries the least emotional weight of the film. Decker exists to be changed by the events of the film, to be that unfeeling hunter who finally comes to understand that his prey may be more human than he is. Because of this, Decker seems to have little emotional range, at least not until the end of the film. Making a character like this memorable isn’t easy, and Ford’s presence is the difference.
The real star of the show is Rutger Hauer, who plays Roy Batty, the leader of the escaped replicants. His portrayal gives us a character that changes in our perceptions more than he changes his performance. Roy seems a borderline psychopath at the film’s onset. A killing machine built too well to stop, driven mad by his mission. All of this is true, too, and that Hauer never undercuts the killer within his character but shows us a passion for life that explains it keeps the film from becoming simplictic or trite. Roy has simply come to the end of a four year lifespan and is desperate to find any way to extend his life. If he has to kill the humans who created and enslaved his kind to do so, he will. And if he can show them what it means to live in fear…well, perhaps that’s justice.
Blade Runner is beyond a great film. It’s a perfect one. It’s a film so measured, so assured in its construction and intent that it makes the movies around it seem paler by comparison. There are movies that I love that, when I watch a film like Blade Runner, I’m forced to rethink a bit. I don’t love those other films less. I just put them back into perspective. There are great films and then there are transcendent ones. Blade Runner is the latter.
See it for the breathtaking visuals, visuals that still look amazing 25 years later. See it for its characters, for its musings on the nature of humanity and life. See it for its set design, its sound design, its entire aesthetic. See it because you’ve probably already seen it, reflected and muted through a hundred other films. See it because its one of the best films ever made.
See it because you’ll probably love it.
I leave you now with one of the best lines in a film ever. One of the most heartbreaking and poignient. The last lines of Roy Batty, spoken to Decker on the roof of a tall building, in the rain:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those … moments will be lost in time, like tears…in the rain. Time to die.