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The afterlife of “Blade Runner”

How it predicted its own future, by Tom Shone

Tom Shone | April 1st 2015

So many great American movies were flops upon first release—“The Wizard of Oz”, “Bringing Up Baby”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Night of the Hunter”, “Citizen Kane”, “Vertigo”—that critics are frequently tempted to put it down to that old bogeyman, the Ignorance of the Masses. In the case of “Bringing Up Baby”, certainly, the public had to catch up with the film, whose scatter-brained comedy required refraction through the age of Freud and Gloria Steinem. In the case of “The Wizard of Oz” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” it seems more a case of straightforward mistaken identity, wherein films destined for status as popular classics were, at first, denied it, a mistake soon rectified with the advent of television and reruns. Not so “Citizen Kane”, a chilly masterpiece destined to be as broadly unloved as Kane himself: one’s approach to that film should feel as lonely as a visit to Kane’s mausoleum. As for “Night of the Hunter”, well, there is a film so spooky and enchanted that it can still feel as if you are the only person ever to have laid eyes on it.

Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”, which is being re-released by the British Film Institute this week, is different, if only because eyes are so integral to the plot: it tells the story of how it would one day be watched. A flop on its release in 1982, taking only $14.8m, “Blade Runner” then disappeared from screens, only to see its designs show up everywhere from Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” to the stage sets for the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour. When laser discs appeared on the market in 1989, the film became a best-seller, and didn’t budge. Here was a movie you went back to, a maze to get lost in, much like “Star Wars”, whose layer-cake of details seemed to cry out for replay. But where “Star Wars” had demanded the big screen—it is, like the Millennium Falcon, fast junk—something in “Blade Runner” seemed happiest at home, in the privacy of the video den and man-cave, where fans could pore over it at their leisure. A film of a million tiny details, it is possible to watch “Blade Runner” pointillistically too.

The film seems to know this. “If you could only see what I’ve seen with your eyes,” says the head “replicant” Roy Batty, a genetically engineered bio-robot played by Rutger Hauer as Nietzsche in cycling shorts. He is much given to tragic-ironic pensées on the mortal pangs of being a superman, while his irises twinkle gold in the night, just like the owls of his creator, Eldon Tyrell. That is how the cops, or blade runners, tell replicants apart from humans, with the Voight-Kampff test, designed to measure minute “fluctuation of the pupil, involuntary dilation of the iris”. Scott here seems to be offering up a twist on the old private-eye pics of yore: a world in which no eyes are private, but are mass-produced, corporate-owned, bearing their own copyright, the means not just to take in this world, but also to give you away.

The blade runner hired to track down these runaways, Deckard (Harrison Ford), has his own way of looking: a voice-operated photo-enhancer that allows its user to get inside any photograph and nose around it, seemingly in 3D. Scott goes into a trance of excitement over the device, lingering over it in a way that has little to do with Deckard’s detective work, and everything to do with the narcotic pleasure of watching this nocturnal solitary figure exercising minute control over a set of images. At a guess, I would say Scott is evoking his art-school roots: the image recalls that of a graphic designer at his board, late at night, and it recurs in his films, from Ash at his computer console in “Alien” to Clarice Starling at her light board in “Hannibal”. No wonder Deckard pours himself a Scotch: this is Scott’s version of freebasing, or pornography, and something about the solitariness of the image, its undercurrent of fussy perfection, hints at why the movies were never really his medium, not in the way they were Hitchcock’s, or Spielberg’s.

The afterlife of “Blade Runner” on home video points to a central weakness: Scott never did get enough detective work into his film, which moves with the stateliness of one of the advertising blimps that trawl the avenues of Los Angeles, blotting out the sky. The attention he paid his proscenium, as opposed to the humans running through it, resulted in a film, too, which plays perfectly well in the background, almost a piece of ambient cinema whose wall-to-wall gorgeousness represents a triumph of production design over direction, from its opening shot of fire-breathing ziggurats—as great a flame-grille opening for a film as that adorning the front end of “Apocalypse Now”—to its last, of elevator doors closing on Deckard as he wrestles with the possibility that he may be a replicant himself. The more you watch “Blade Runner”, or any other Scott movie for that matter, the more convinced you are that this is his idea of a happy ending.

So why has the BFI put the film back into theatres? If “Blade Runner” demands to be seen on the big screen today it is as much for its evocation of film’s past as its future. Its achievement is firmly analogue. Here is the vanished world of sets and miniatures, lovingly crafted and photographed through anamorphic lenses which sculpt the space, using all those smog and rain effects, into a series of distinct planes, each with their own depth cues and none of that over-crammed, slightly flat feeling that the digital paintbox brings. Scott’s city is dense but deep, his sense of space as airy and vaulted as Milton’s. If “Blade Runner” has a sense of humanity, or any warmth, it is here—in its evocation of the urban sublime. His Los Angeles is to die for. Released just two years after Michael Cimino’s “Heaven's Gate”, and four years after Terence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”—two titles destined for an afterlife if ever there was one—“Blade Runner” belongs as firmly with them as it does with “The Matrix” or “Se7en”, or any other dark, rain-drenched dystopia to come. Like the Malick and Cimino films, it tells of an Eden spoiled, paradise lost, just as something very similar was happening to the movies themselves.

Blade Runner re-released in Britain, April 3rd

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