Tuesday, August 5, 2014

AFI Top 100: #97 "Blade Runner"

Harrison Ford & Sean Young in Blade Runner (1982)

Four weeks down, and we're still going strong! Not bad, if I do say so myself (just don't remind me that we have 96 more weeks to go)... Sunday, we came upon the first "cult" favorite on the AFI Top 100 list:  #97 Blade Runner. Specifically, the Theatrical Version. I had a long chat with my Masters-in-Film-Studies holding, brother-in-law, Jonathan, about which version to screen: US Theatrical, Director's Cut, or The Final Cut - and that's just 3 of the 7 cuts that are out there!

Because this is the Top 100 list, I felt that historical consistency was important. This list was released the same year as the Final Cut, which automatically disqualified it from contention. For that reason, we viewed the US Theatrical - and arguably, "less good" - version of the film. 

I will be reviewing it as a standalone, not in comparison to the other cuts (because, frankly, the other cuts make it an entirely different movie). So please keep that in mind, and try not to yell at me about how the others are better -- because, as you'll see... that's not a hard accomplishment.

Blade Runner is a neo-noir based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Set in 2019 Los Angeles, the world is an over-populated, dystopian haze. A new life on one of the off-world colonies is but a dream for all who remain on Earth. Human-like androids, called "replicants", are used as slave and military labor off-world, and are forbidden from returning to Earth, due to the danger they could pose to humans.

That's where our protagonist comes in. After four Nexus-6 generation (the most advanced) replicants escape the colonies and find their way back to Earth's surface, the police call on Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter cop known as a "Blade Runner," to track them down for one last job.

Harrison Ford plays Deckard with all the subtly of a punch to the throat. He's a man struggling with the emotional strain years of "retiring" humanoid replicants has put on him. He doesn't want to do this job. But not badly enough to fight very hard to turn it down. As his search begins, he starts - where else? - at the beginning: the place the replicants were "born." In Los Angeles, that means the Tyrell Corporation. Tyrell is a brilliant business man and visionary; a man who has learned to play God with his creations.

At the Tyrell Corp, Deckard meets the person who will change everything for him. Rachel (Sean Young), Tyrell's assistant, is offered up to Deckard as a subject for the replicant detection test - you know, "to see how a human would grade." A hundred questions later, it is clear to Deckard that Rachel is (spoiler! but not really) a replicant -- she just doesn't know it. Replicants, with their four-year life spans, are emotionally immature and easily spotted through their emotional response to normal human experiences. Basically, they're baby sociopaths.

Given their short life spans (which essentially means they "power down"), the motivation for the replicants becomes clear: extend their lives, by any means necessary.

This is where I begin to have issues with this film. Motivation is a driving force behind every character's actions... except everything just feels... off. Like every second. Deckard's motivation is never very clear, even with his languid narration interspersed throughout. He wants to catch the replicants, that part is clear. Because he was told to? I guess. Pretty flimsy, if you ask me.

And his resolve for that outcome is only weakened by the introduction of Rachel, whose only purpose is to instill additional uncertainty in Deckard's already emotional mentality (she also made me want to scream "Laces out!" every time she came on screen - but I digress). So what's the motivation now?  "I have to stop them... I guess?"

Now, to the replicants, and the B Story - unarguably the more dynamic and interesting aspect of the film. I'm going to refrain from recounting each detail of the story -- after all, my point isn't to give a full summary. Yet it's important to say that a lot of time is spent showing two of the four replicants (Roy & Pris) as they struggle to hide from the blade runners, while still seeking answers to their plight.

And that plight is hugely motivational. They want to survive! Sure, they're violent and homicidal, but considering what's at stake, that's pretty darn justified! Again, this just poses more problems for the movie. Sympathetic antagonists are nothing new (Ian McKellan's Magneto comes to mind); they often make the protagonist more interesting, by default. Yet Blade Runner does a HUGE disservice to these characters by making them weirdo, crazy, mindless killers in one scene -- and then flipping the switch and giving them all of our sympathy in the next, leaving none left over for Deckard.

Deckard's scenes with Rachel are forced and awkward. They have absolutely no chemistry, and Ford effortlessly gives off a "rape-y" vibe, which is apparently supposed to be sexy. He also struggles to even function when coming face-to-face with the replicants.  Isn't this guy supposed to be the best? Why is he so inept at hand-to-hand combat? And why does he come off as a powerless coward in his face-off with replicant leader, Roy? This is never explained (other than to say, "Oh but he just feels so much more now." Wait, what? No.)

Too much time is spent merely suggesting that Deckard is a replicant, yet... not really? Other versions (I promised to avoid this topic!) broach this subject in more effective ways. Unfortunately, this isn't that version. I can't commend a movie for what it could have been. Instead, we have to look at what it is. And what it is is a beautiful looking, artistically ground-breaking mess. What's worse is... it's really, really boring.

the art direction of Blade Runner

There are themes galore (What is humanity?), but the movie doesn't do them justice. The pacing makes it nearly impossible to fully realize any subtle suggestions or implications. Anything deeper can only be shoehorned in by the viewer. In the end, it focuses so much on its own style and completely disregards anything that could really give the plot and characters the dimension they deserve. If the B plot were the A plot, and our protagonists were the replicants fighting the good fight... I can't help but think that would be a much more compelling story.

Director Ridley Scott may have lost control of the film due to studio interference. Which is unfortunate. But does what he tried to do warrant putting this under-whelming film on the AFI Top 100? Not in the slightest. Hollywood has gotten dystopian sci-fi films down pretty pat over the last 30+ years (12 Monkeys, The Matrix, City of Lost Children, the list goes on). Let's give them a shot in the ranking, and let Blade Runner fall off the list for good.

Rating:  ★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews]

What are your thoughts? Do you agree? Or strongly disagree (as I'm sure many of you Blade Runner fans do!) Let me know in the comments!

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Check out #96 on the AFI Top 100 list, Do the Right Thing!

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