I had the opportunity to see Blade Runner at The Ritz – Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Austin this past January. It was my first time to see the cult favorite on the big screen. I don’t love ranking films, but if I were forced to pick a top 3, Blade Runner would be my first and easiest choice. I was only 6 years old when it was theatrically released, and though my dad was a big fan of the film and watched it countless times on VHS at home, I didn’t really become interested in it until I was in my late teens. That was the 90s, and the 90s were a good time for Blade Runner.
The film bombed when it hit theaters in 1982, but the release of the so-called Director’s Cut in 1992 and the cult following the film had built over the decade since its release reignited interest in it, leading many critics to reexamine – and reappraise – the film. It is now widely thought to be one of the most important science fiction films ever laid down on celluloid.
Needless to say, I was very excited for the chance to finally see this masterpiece in the theater where it was meant to be seen. Someone from Birth.Movies.Death introduced the film (I can’t remember her name). We were to be shown the Final Cut, and while she was spitting factoids that were old news to me, I sat there trying to recall if I’d seen this cut before. I’m still not positive (I own it), but I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d seen this particular edit of the film. I think I prefer the Director’s Cut, but that’s an argument for another day.
As I mentioned, I saw the film at an Alamo Drafthouse. If you’re not familiar, this theater chain serves food and drinks during the showings. I was just biting into my Royale with Cheese when the first bass drum strike sounded in the dark. “Jerry Perenchio and Bud Yorkin Present” appeared in white, block letters followed by the title card, Blade Runner, in contrasting blood-red letters; the opening scroll, providing the audience the only real introduction to this strange world we’d get; and then the setting and date again in white block letters: Los Angeles November, 2019. I knew what was coming, so I put the burger down and sat back in my seat. The guy munching on the pizza next to me did the same. It might have been my imagination, but I swear you could feel the audience anticipating that first shot. And when it came, though I’ve seen it dozens of times before on the small screen, I was struck dumb by it.
Blade Runner opens on a shot of what Douglas Trumbull and crew affectionately called “Hades”. Future Los Angeles rolls away from cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s camera like oil refineries stacked a thousand deep. Flare stacks explode in the foreground like exclamation marks on the sprawling cityscape, their flames licking the ashy-red sky as spinners (flying cars, basically) flit past. It’s bleak. It’s terrifying. And, somehow, it’s incredibly beautiful.
As the camera slowly moves across this hellscape, two pyramids appear on the ashy horizon. The thing that struck me most about this series of shots is how real it all looks. I’ve seen the behind the scenes footage. I know how these shots were captured and how Hades was built. I know they’re miniatures. And, yet, I couldn’t help but compare what I was seeing with more modern films that employ CGI in place of practical effects (I’m thinking specifically of Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels) to achieve the same thing. It’s not as convincing to me. Mileage may vary. At any rate, after this opening salvo, I had a difficult time paying attention to the plot and, for the most part, just sat there, stunned, letting these incredible images wash over me.
For better or worse, a film like Blade Runner gets watched and re-evaluated enough that elements that might have been initially overlooked eventually get the attention they deserve (or don’t, as it were). Plenty of ink has been spilled over Harrison Ford’s typically charismatic performance, and Rutger Hauer’s mostly improvised “Tears in rain” soliloquy has been praised and discussed to death. I’ve even seen Edward James Olmos’s turn as the post-ethnic Gaff analyzed and commended a good deal online, but the performance that stuck out for me was M. Emmet Walsh’s as Bryant, the captain of the titular Blade Runner unit. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Walsh’s performance feels like it’s from another time. Another film. Maybe a 40s noir. Since Blade Runner is itself a modern noir, maybe that’s what Walsh was going for. I honestly don’t know. Whether it’s pastiche Walsh was going for or something else entirely, I found myself mesmerized by his quirky portrayal of the less-than-ethical Bryant. The look he gives Ford’s Deckard when Deckard questions the efficacy of the Voight-Kampff test (the in-universe polygraph-like machine that is supposed to be able to tell replicant from human) haunted me even after the credits rolled.
Deckard isn’t very good at his job. This is not exactly a little-known fact. One of the most often cited counterarguments to Ridley Scott’s insistence that Deckard is a replicant is that Deckard spends the entire film getting his ass kicked by all of the actual replicants in the movie. Bryant forces him out of retirement because the last blade runner he sent wasn’t good enough. “I need the old blade runner” Bryant says, with a gleam in his eye. “I need your magic.” But what magic? I mean, Deckard does what little detecting there is to do pretty well I guess, but I don’t know if I would call it magic. Not much is made of Deckard’s attempts to track down the replicants. They just sort of fall into his lap. The film’s lack of plot in this regard has been a pretty common criticism in recent years. So if his “magic” isn’t in his detecting abilities, one might conclude that he must be a pretty bad motherfucker. I mean, he’s going toe to toe with androids, some of which have been designed as combat models. You would think he could hold his own against the baddest of the bad. You know, “magic” and all.
But he actually only manages to “retire” two female replicants.
Now, people are going to say “They’re genetically engineered organisms, so their physical abilities are not constrained by their genders.” And while I agree with the in-universe logic in this argument, it’s clear that Ridley Scott, Hampton Fancher, and David Peoples were trying to make a point by having him shoot one female replicant in the back as she is running away and only narrowly escape death at the hands of Daryl Hannah’s “pleasure model”. Deckard fails to retire both of the male replicants, Leon and Roy, surviving his encounter with the former only because Rachel (another replicant) is there to save his ass, while being spared by the latter at the climax of the film.
I’ve seen the film dozens of times, and I am well-aware that Deckard isn’t a typical hero figure in the film, but seeing his deeds writ large on the big screen somehow exaggerated their grossness and left me pondering, all over again, the film’s question about humanity.
I talked a bit about the cinematography, but one of my favorite facets of the film is the score by Vangelis. There’s not a lot I can say about this that couldn’t be better illustrated by you finding a copy of the soundtrack, donning a pair of good headphones, and settling down with it in a dark room on your own. But I will say this: as amazing as Vangelis’s synth-heavy score is on its own, it is even better heard in a theater with good sound. There are films that can not be separated from their soundtracks (Star Wars is one of them), but Vangelis’s music feels like it somehow anticipated Ridley Scott’s film. Like it was tucked away somewhere waiting to be found and paired with the appropriate images. I felt lucky to have heard it the way it was meant to be heard.
The world of Blade Runner is our present. And while we may not have flying cars or android slaves, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir still has a few things to say nearly 40 years after its theatrical release. Keep an eye on SAW this month for a series of articles celebrating, analyzing, and discussing this science fiction masterpiece.