Studio: Warner Bros.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples
Producer: Michael Deeley
Stars: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joe Turkel, Joanna Cassidy
In futuristic Los Angeles, a former detective is tasked to hunt down deadly synthetic humans determined to find their creator.
NOTE: "The Final Cut" version of "Blade Runner" was screened for this review.
“Blade Runner.” Whisper those words to many film fans and you will stroke touchstones of glorious neo-noir vistas, sweeping cinematography, haunting echoes of Vangelis’ celebrated score, literate layers exploring the constitution of humanity, and a futurist fantasy held in high esteem as one of genre cinema’s most influential works. That same high esteem is what concurrently qualifies “Blade Runner” for the crown of most overrated science-fiction film of all time.
There. I said it, and I stand by it.
Before lobbing any accusations of manufacturing a hot take to attract rage clicks, understand that I am not usually a contrarian critic. Anyone who discusses film with me privately has known my unpopular position on the movie for decades. I’m only comfortable making it public now because I believe others are afraid of losing stock as sci-fi fans if they dare to admit how dull “Blade Runner” really is. I’m here to tell you you’re not alone, and you’re not wrong. “Blade Runner” is boring.
Try mounting a convincing argument about what, structurally, makes “Blade Runner” so supposedly great without once referring to its visuals, which I’ll grant is a colossal subtraction to make for this hypothetical. Is it the labored pacing and inert staging featuring conflicts that repeatedly play out over calm conversations? Is it superfluous supporting characters such as fourth-billed Edward James Olmos, who utters just two intelligible sentences without serving an essential interim function? Is it the way Harrison Ford and Sean Young’s rapid romance pushes itself into existence after only seven cold minutes together, made more uncomfortable by the way he physically restrains her from leaving his apartment to force a kiss? Is it screenwriting shortcuts where motivations are ignored to move to the next scene? (Deckard to Bryant on being forced out of retirement: “No choice, huh?” Bryant’s response: “No choice, pal.” Glad that was satisfactorily sorted.)
Rick Deckard is a replicant-hunting detective, a blade runner, in 2019 Los Angeles, which resembles a rain-soaked Times Square times ten steeped in as much steam as assimilated Asian culture. Only a fool would argue over how conceptually breathtaking the scenery is. But a bigger fool would insist that every repeated pass past an animated Coca-Cola logo or singing woman on an oversized digital billboard is absolutely necessary for establishing ambiance, and not at all overindulgent to where one wants to look at the clock with a sigh.
These details, like Olmos’ curious origami creations, William Sanderson’s diminutive automatons, odd-shaped Johnnie Walker bottles, Daryl Hannah’s Annie Lennox makeup, etc. absolutely create an incredibly immersive setting. But the main substance of the story is so blandly basic, costumes and sets build a bolder world than “Blade Runner” ever substantially employs.
Deckard’s assignment has him hunting down several synthetic humans who, having discovered they are at the end of their limited lifespans, have gone rogue in an effort to force their creator to “fix” them. I could elaborate on the plot except I wouldn’t know what more to say. Basically, if you break the hypnotic spell of the undeniably amazing production design, the reality is you’re stuck staring at a simple bounty hunter police procedural that would lose a race to the tortoise Leon left in the desert.
Had I the luxury of spending a week or more on analysis, as opposed to less than half of a single day, I’d go into deeper detail on this “Blade Runner” breakdown solely to protect myself from fervent fans wishing to take me to task for my sacrilege statements. But those on my side already know other points I might make since they’ve yawned for the same reasons. And those anxious to shout counterarguments can never be convinced that their Holy Grail of Philip K. Dick adaptations has a hard time excelling in any category that doesn’t involve imagery.
“Blade Runner” has eight different versions because no one truly knows how to make the material work, and because someone in charge acknowledged that at least seven of those cuts were unsatisfying, necessitating yet another one. Only George Lucas’ original “Star Wars” trilogy has seen more tinkering, and look at the collective opinion of those Special Editions. Even director Ridley Scott, evidently unfulfilled, still tries wrestling with the theological and theoretical themes tackled here by exploring similar A.I. moral quandaries in “Prometheus” (review here) and “Alien: Covenant” (review here), determined to finally “get it right.”
I’m nowhere near arrogant enough to dismiss “Blade Runner’s” generally accepted status as a classic, because the consensus has correctly spoken on that subject. Being deeply flawed doesn’t disqualify the film from being an exceptional cinematic achievement, certainly as far as special effects go.
I merely challenge that the movie might not be the extraordinarily engaging epic many think they remember without consciously recalling why. Strip out the Syd Mead-inspired spectacle and look hard at what’s left in terms of dry character development, stagnant plotting, and standard “what it means to be human” subtext. You might find that “Blade Runner” isn’t the pinnacle of inspiring or exciting originality that many give it credit for.
Review Score: 50