Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Blade Runner review

    It's cyberpunk month here, unofficially or otherwise, here at the United Federation of Charles and I can't help but talk about the classic which helped inspire the genre of cyberpunk. Aside from William Gibson's Neuromancer, the Ridley Scott adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep remains the definitive example of what people think of when they talk about the work. Well, that and Robocop. It is also one of the rare cases where I believe the movie improves on the original, though they're so different it's better to take a "inspired by the events of DADOES" rather than considering it
a straight adaptation.

    Most people know the general story of the film: Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a retired police officer who formerly worked for the Blade Runner unit. It is the job of Blade Runners to hunt down and execute ("retire") all androids ("Replicants") who live on Earth. In the future, despite the Earth's eco-system and economy having collapsed, we've created an entire race of cybernetic humans who exist as a slave labor cast to humanity.

Also known as LA today.
    Worse, we've restricted these androids to a mere four years of existence in what is said to be a control measure but I can't help but wonder was probably a built-in-obsolesce so people would always have to buy more. A group of Replicants led by Roy Batty (Rutger Haur) have escaped the off-world colonies and the police pull Deckard back in to find them. Deckard hates being a Blade Runner but he's supposedly very good at it, we don't actually see much of that to be honest, and sets out to sniff them out before accidentally meeting a beautiful Replicant raised to believe she was a human named Rachel (Sean Young). He must navigate his job as well as his increasing feelings of empathy for the Replicants to figure out where he stands on the issue.

Deckard is an awful human being. Part of the appeal, really.
    Blade Runner could have been a very stupid movie. It would be very easy to side with the Replicants and make it clear they're the good guys fighting against a horribly oppressive system. In fact, in the original DADOES, it's actually the Nazis who inspired the discussion of who and who isn't human. The thing is, both the book and movie are smart enough to make the story more complex. Oppression has not made the renegade Replicants any more noble or good, they're just oppressed and all of them are full of anger which makes them lash out at innocent as well as not so innocent parties.

    This kind of story could never be done without the metaphor of robots because who would want to watch a story about escaped slaves where the slaves were, well, evil? My sympathy is certainly with Roy Batty despite the fact he'd be labeled a terrorist today. However, the genius of Blade Runner is the fact our perspective is with an ambivalent slave overseer and bounty hunter. A man who sees the collateral damage they have to leave behind in order to get even a modicum of freedom as well as those they blame for being treated like animals. It's the perfect kind of noir story because everyone is awful because the system has made them that way.

Too bad she won't live but then again, who does?
    There's a lot of ambivalence and grays in the movie which benefit if you watch the version without narration. Characters' motivations are also a lot murkier and it makes the story better, in my opinion. For example: the character of Rachel is one which Deckard lusts after. She's intelligent, beautiful, and cold but also someone in need of rescue so it appeals to his desire not to feel like a monster for all the Replicants he's retired. He wants to believe she's attracted to him and that she's falling in love with him--but is she? Once revealed as a Replicant, Rachel is a marked woman and has nowhere to go so is Deckard the only port in a storm? Especially when he's a cop who might protect her from retirement?

    The Replicants themselves don't have much screen-time but all of them have little quirks which make their story work well. Roy Batty is a genius super-soldier who, if he'd been born human, probably would have been a Caesar or Washington. However, he's also an emotionally unstable four-year-old who has only a few social connections that are dying all around him. Leon is a dirt stupid construction worker who just wants to live and be with his friends but is capable of killing whoever stands in his way. Zora is a assassin turned stripper, which is the kind of lateral career move which usually only happens in tabletop RPGs but symbolizes the fact she just wants to live as a normal person. Priss, well, Priss is a mystery as a prostitute model is notably the most dangerous Replicant and also the most ingratiating.

Tyrell's office is befitting God. If God had awful taste in suits.
    Even the characters who are part of the awful system have their humanizing qualities. Tyrell is a trafficker in human life and mass murder via their shortened lifespans but one who marvels at his creations. In a horrifying way, he loves them, but business comes first. J.F. Sebastian is a teenage genius who is already well in middle-age due to a medical condition that makes him closer to his creations than his fellow humans. He played a roll in creating the horror of Replicant life but has nothing but sympathy for them once he meets them. Even the Blade Runners have a reason for why they are since the thinking machines routinely kill them out of hand.

    It's the rainy, dull, and neon vision of a multicultural Los Angeles which is remembered from most people's vision, though. A place where humankind has mostly fled from its dying home planet to the stars where life is probably every bit as bad. It's the look of cyberpunk for a reason, basically because everyone can imagine living in a city so technologically advanced but also miserable.

In fact, fashion has really gone to hell in the future.
    Regarding the classic question of whether Deckard is a Replicant or not, I'm squarely on the idea it should be unambiguously he's a human. The entire fan theory stems mostly from production errors and the fact Deckard thinks of the same things Replicants do which Gaff knows. For me, it undermines the point of the movie the Replicants are more vibrant, alive, and passionate about their existence than the humans who exist in a robotic state of depression. It also undermines the movie's ending where the point is a character discovering the value of all life. It's like revealing Hal and Dave are both machines in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

     There's some question which is the best version of Blade Runner but I have to say I prefer the Director's Cut. I think the voice overs, while film noir, kind of overexplain. There's no need to say, for example, that the Blade Runners are racist cops since they embody that with every breath. Likewise, the happy ending is unnecessary and kind of leaves the story in a artificially brighter place than it should be (especially since the environment shouldn't allow a pleasant country drive on Earth).

It's as if Superman and Harley Quinn were a couple.
    What are my favorite moments of this movie? That's a hard question to answer since there's so many which are just perfect and memorable. Zhora's reverse-strip tease and chase sequence, Deckard sitting in front of a photograph as he tries to get into the mind of his foe, the drunken decidedly non-consensual confrontation between Deckard and Rachel, or the final confrontation between Batty and our "hero." Batty confronted by the man who has murdered his loved ones, trying to convey just how much Deckard has cost him.

    In conclusion, everyone who hasn't seen Blade Runner probably should. If you are going in expecting a deep philosophical treatise on A.I. rights then you'll be disappointed. This is an action movie, a very good one, but you'll have to do a lot of the mental heavy lifting. For those who like thinking about that sort of stuff and debate on the internet then it's a classic for a reason.


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