Friday, 6 October 2017

Richard Grenier on Blade Runner, Commentary Magazine 1982

Richard Grenier, reviewing Blade Runner in Commentary magazine, 1982.

By far the best and most interesting of this year’s big summer movies is Blade Runner, which also got off to a good start in the last days of June. The leading role is played by Harrison Ford (of Raiders of the Lost Ark). It cost some $30 million. It is “futuristic.” But above all it is directed by England’s Ridley Scott, who the last time out created Alien, with its eponymous Alien, an outer-space creature of quite astonishing malevolence. The film ended up in the year’s big four (in the company, coincidentally, of Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, and Superman). Scott is a director with a dazzling visual technique, an undisputed virtuoso manner in the handling of colossal subjects, and how he managed to combine these skills with a smashing entry into the big money without becoming one of the cinema’s household names is a mystery I have yet to plumb.

Even if I had not seen Scott’s earlier pictures (Alien and his superb The Duellists), I think I might have suspected from a few advance hints I had picked up that Blade Runner was not going to be just another big summer kid movie. I knew that Scott was not very attracted to science fiction as a genre and avoided the expression entirely, going so far as to say, “Anybody on this set who uses the word ‘android’ gets his head broken with a baseball bat” (thereby also making it unlikely that Mr. Scott is a Quaker). I knew that what he disliked about most films set in the future was their juvenile fantasy quality, what he has called “all silver hair and diagonal zippers.” I knew that he was by vocation a realist, however stunning his skills of composition and montage. And, perhaps not entirely irrelevantly, I knew that his producer was Michael Deeley, who also produced The Deer Hunter.

The opening shot of Blade Runner is simply staggering. The scene is Los Angeles in the year 2019—a mere thirty-seven years from now. (At an earlier stage Scott had planned to set his film in New York or Chicago, but I suspect the new vision came when he saw Los Angeles from the heights of the Hollywood Hills, which is one of the strange sights of this world.) The aerial perspective still suggests the Los Angeles of 1982, but all has changed. Where today flourishes that endless archipelago of suburbs, in the film all is dark and ominous, the city-scape lit only by occasional flare-ups of burning gas as at oil refineries. A drastic energy shortage has arrived and the suburban areas seem half empty, but as we approach the central city we see first the splendor—giant truncated pyramids in a kind of high-tech Babylonian—and then the squalor of the streets: slime, consumer detritus of all kinds, incessant rain, presumably the result of a pernicious change in the earth’s atmosphere. On the roofs of old buildings, shabby wind-energy generators turn desultorily. The colonization of outer space is well advanced, and we see an electrified dirigible cruising above the streets as part of a high-pressure media blitz exhorting viewers, not to “Come to Sunny California,” of course, but to join the new colonists “off-world.” The advertising blitz has a menacing ambiguity to it, suggesting that perhaps the earth’s best have already gone to settle in outer space, leaving only the dregs, while at the same time planting skepticism: if it’s so wonderful out there, why are they advertising so frantically?

Meanwhile, on the streets, the citizens of what was once the greatest automobile city in the world peddle bicycles in what now looks like Tokyo’s Ginza district. And if this picture of the technological future is disturbing, the picture of the future of the American population—at least of the mass population of the cities—comes as something of a shock, for the Anglo-American civilization seems to have been submerged. The blare of music in the streets is sometimes Arab, sometimes Japanese. Physically the people are a mix of Chicanos, Chinese, Japanese, riff-raff whites, some dressed in “punk” derivatives. They talk “Streetspeak,” a mixture of “Spanish, Japanese, German, whatever.” An absolutely gigantic electrical bas relief of a Japanese woman’s head urges viewers in Japanese to drink Coca-Cola. On the sleazy streets and in the garish bars there are, curiously, very few blacks—one of the film’s many departures, in its construction of the future, from straight-line extrapolations of present trends.

The reviewer from Variety, the show-business trade journal, while showering Ridley Scott with praise for his spectacular mastery of his craft (also given high praise by Jack Kroll of Newsweek and others), felt that he had presented an exceedingly “depressing” view of the future. I offer this critic at least one reason why this may be so. Ridley Scott’s view is not a realistic projection of things to come. It is, I suspect, his nightmare vision of what our society would become if it were overrun by what we call the Third World.

In addition to being swamped by alien peoples not absorbed into the national culture (Scott has called the “splitting into faction groups” explicitly “alarming”), the America of Blade Runner has lost all sense of community. Individuals in this Los Angeles of the future, and most unmistakably the film’s hero, Deckard (Harrison Ford), lead lives of agonizing loneliness. Deckard has no friends, no lover, no family. What has brought about this bleak state of affairs? If this were a vision of George Orwell the cause would probably be totalitarianism, but the world of Blade Runner is not a highly controlled police state. If this were the vision of Jean-Luc Godard, the cause would no doubt be capitalism, but, although capitalism has evidently survived in Blade Runner, we see very little of the power structure. The film’s burden seems to be the opposite of Marshall McLuhan’s panglossian concept of a “global village.” The world is too vast and too variegated to become a global village. Smaller, more cohesive social units will have been destroyed and there will be nothing to replace them.

But, curiously, Blade Runner is not primarily political at all. Caveat emptor. It is a film about the human condition, about mortality, and ends with a startling burst of Christian symbolism.

A skimpy summary of Blade Runner‘s plot emphasizes the science-fiction origins of a film whose merits reside in texture and detailing. By 2019 the earth is decayed and millions of people have been forced to colonize other planets. Those who remain behind live in huge cities, a mixture of new buildings four-hundred stories high and the dilapidated remains of our own and earlier periods. The streets team with Orientals, Hare Krishnas, men in fezzes, all lit by a lurid blaze of flashing neon. Police patrol in “Spinners,” flying cars that hover above the swarming streets. Genetic engineering has become one of the earth’s major industries. When most of the world’s animals became extinct, genetic engineers first produced artificial animals, and then, to do the hard, hazardous, and often tedious work necessary in the colonies on other planets, artificial humans called “replicants.”

The Tyrell Corporation, the world’s leading manufacturers of replicants, has recently introduced the “Nexus 6,” with far greater strength and intelligence than human beings. These latest-model replicants represent an obvious potential danger to human society and their introduction on earth has been strictly outlawed, an offense calling for the death penalty. The replicants who somehow make their way back to earth are systematically exterminated (not “killed” since they are not human), the special detectives trained to track down and liquidate the infiltrating replicants being known as “blade runners.”

The replicants, then, are a kind of super-slave race, closely resembling human beings (and of course played in the film by thoroughly human actors), but with no rights or, in fact, feelings—which is how they are detected, by a special “Voight-Kampff empathy/response test.” As a safety factor they have been given only a four-year life span, and are, in a sense, mortal: the germ of the story.

Once upon a time, when the world was new, which is to say in 1921, Karel Capek’s R.U.R., “Rossum’s Universal Robots” (a play which originated not only the idea of robots but the very word “robot,” a derivative of the Czech, and Russian, words for “work”) could easily be seen as an anti-Communist play: the robot revolution slaughtering the creators of robots, everyone who doesn’t work with his hands; the attempt to make “nationalist” robots to fight the “revolutionary” robots. The political allegory that attached to the original artificial humans washed away a long time ago, however, and contemporary science fiction now gives us synthetic humanlike creatures in all shapes and sizes, virtuous, wicked, friendly, hostile.

In the opening of Blade Runner, police receive an emergency report that four Nexus-6 replicants—two male and two female—have killed the crew of a space shuttle and returned to earth. The blade runner assigned to track them down and “terminate” them is Deckard. It is one of Ridley Scott’s consistent traits that, whatever the locale or setting, he seeks to make his stories as credible and realistic as possible, avoiding, in this case, what he calls the “pristine, austere, clean look” in his sets and the childlike fantasy quality in general story line. Scott has reached back to the 40’s, for example, for the suggestion of some of the women’s costumes. Thirty-seven years isn’t that far ahead, he says. And Deckard himself is straight out of the 40’s, a Raymond Chandler character, a Philip Marlowe.

So it is in the tones of that hardbitten Raymond Chandler voice we have heard in a thousand movies that we hear the story of this decayed, atomized, loveless world of the future. It is a calculated stroke, daring, zany, slightly surrealistic, but in my view it works. “The replicants have no feelings. The blade runners have no feelings,” muses the joyless Deckard, adding bleakly that the rest of humanity isn’t much better.

But desolate and hopeless as is his view of the world, Deckard, like his Chandlerian antecedents, still does his duty. Like a combatant who no longer remembers the ideals for which a war is being fought, hates the suffering, but still continues to fight, Deckard soldiers grimly on. His cynical tone doesn’t prevent him from engaging in absolutely spectacular battles with, interestingly, the two (particularly warlike) female Nexus-6 replicants, with one of his antagonists hurtling through a whole series of shattering plate-glass windows and the other producing an electrifying death rattle of shocking violence. I would not want to leap to conclusions and infer that this is Ridley Scott’s final statement on the female “assertiveness training” going around and on the coming aggressive feminist millennium, but I can only note that I have never seen anything even resembling a woman blown to such bloody bits as in Blade Runner.

A fifth replicant, however, has infiltrated the Los Angeles area, another female, Rachael (Sean Young), this one much more peaceful. In fact, she is so socially adapted that she doesn’t even know she’s a replicant, but Deckard subjects her to lengthy sessions with his Voight-Kampff equipment (rather like our lie-detector apparatus) and concludes that she is not human. Yet so desperate is his loneliness that even suspecting she is a soulless artifact and that all her rather bland emotional responses have been “implanted,” he proceeds to fall in love with her.

But the film’s central encounter is between Deckard and the chief of the four warrior replicants, the silver-blond Roy Batty (played by Holland’s Rutger Hauer of Soldier of Orange and of Sylvester Stallone’s Nighthawks). A strange shift takes place in the movie when we realize that the “combat-model” replicants, murderous though they may be, have a stronger sense of community than the human beings on earth (where they get this from is mysterious). They are a cohesive group. They are loyal to each other. The next step is when we learn the nature of Batty’s mission. With his three other partners now destroyed by explosive bullets, Batty succeeds in finding his way to Tyrell himself, the master of the Tyrell Corporation and the genetic-engineering genius who actually designed him. Batty wants to have his genetic code altered to extend his assigned four-year life span. He wants simply: to live. This proves impossible and Batty, condemned to die, kills Tyrell in a despairing rage, calling him (as Zeus to Cronos) “Father.” And we are soon into the final combat between Deckard and Batty on the rooftops of this mad, futuristic, Ginza-Los Angeles.

At the battle’s climax, Batty, who has been growing more human every minute, bests Deckard, who at the end is entirely at Batty’s mercy, hanging by his fingertips from a ledge, ready to drop hundreds of feet into the street below. But Batty spares him, saying, “Now you know what it’s like to live in fear,” and plucks him back from the abyss. Then, his time come, Batty sits down on the roof in the rain. His head slumps forward. “There was nothing I could do but watch him die,” says Deckard. Earlier, feeling increasing sympathy for the replicants, Deckard has reflected, “They’re not that different from us really,” and wondered, “Where do we come from? Where are we going? How much time have we got?” During the Deckard-Batty combat, Batty drives a spike into his own hand, and in the very last phase a white dove—for centuries the symbol of the Holy Ghost—suddenly appears in his other hand. As he slumps dying on the roof the dove stays with him, until, at his last breath, the white bird takes wing and flies into the heavens.

In a panic Deckard rushes to find the beautiful Rachael. When he asks a fellow blade runner how she is, he gets the answer, “She’s going to die, but aren’t we all?” Deckard finds her, and in the last sequence the two of them fly to the north to escape (breathtaking aerial shots), seeking a place to hide where Rachael can live out her time, neither of them knowing how long that time will be, the other blade runner’s words still echoing in Deckard’s mind: “She’s going to die, but aren’t we all?” Their plane sweeps over the California coastal range, between heaven and earth. This is the end of the picture.

Where do we come from? Where are we going? How much time have we got? Reviewers have expressed admiration for Ridley Scott’s technical virtuosity, praising the film as a visual festival, but a number of them have admitted puzzlement as to what it is “about.” Now I can understand Blade Runner being called insanely ambitious, pretentious, anguished, violent, mystical, incoherent, or simply mad. But when a movie features the lines I have italicized, and shows the holy spirit mounting to heaven at the death of a mortal creature, I should think it would be plain what it is about.

In my view this is a very strange and highly original movie. While using a vast array of materials from popular culture, it seems to me to have been made in something of an ontological pop frenzy about the meaning of existence. As the film advances no occasion is missed to stress that the condition of replicants is, in fact, the human condition. Replicants are made by a creator they cannot comprehend. They want to live, but know they must die. They, like men, crave the life everlasting.

Ridley Scott did not come out of nowhere. Blade Runner is his third film. His first, made when he was thirty-eight, was The Duellists, based on a rather obscure Joseph Conrad short story, “The Duel,” originally called “A Point of Honor.” It is a tale of two officers in Napoleon’s Hussars who cross each other and somewhat absurdly, fight a whole series of bitter duels from one end of Europe to the other while nominally concerned with fighting their country’s enemies in the service of the Emperor. The costumes, setting, and feeling for the period are extraordinary, the faces sweaty, the officers with braided hair. French critics (a hard audience when it comes to watching Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine play Frenchmen) were utterly swept away. The film won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and Scott’s career as a director was off to a flying start.

Most critics who admired The Duellists were probably under the impression that it was an “antiwar” movie, strongly condemning the military mentality, but I believe Scott’s attitude, indeed like Conrad’s, was much more nuanced. While granting the insanity of dueling, Conrad, like most men of his age, was in some awe of the martial spirit, and it is unlikely that Scott would have been browsing through Conrad to begin with if he had not felt something of the same response. “Those were violent times,” Scott has said about the Napoleonic wars. “And violent men.”

Aside from a truly sumptuous shooting style, Scott’s most consistent trait as a director is probably his flair for realistic detailing, which makes whatever setting he chooses, no matter what the period, past or present, so peculiarly convincing. In The Duellists the tense sword fights, which take place everywhere from a gentle valley in the Dordogne to the snows of Russia, are likely to be counterpointed by the bleating of sheep, the lowing of cows, the snort of a horse. Flapping geese waddle to get out of the hussars’ path as they savagely thrust and parry. In Alien the crew members of the spaceship argue about pay rates. The spaceship’s passageways are filled with sweating pipes, littered with greasy rags. Even in as wildly imaginative a work as Blade Runner, Deckard is not served the noodles he orders in a Japanese diner but the wrong kind of noodles. The computer terminal in his home (whose decor is copied from that of a famous Frank Lloyd Wright house in Los Feliz in the L.A. area) is suitably worn and battered. The Bradbury Building, where Deckard and Batty have their last battle, is a real building in downtown Los Angeles, built in 1893 and shown, over a century later, in appropriate disrepair.

Ridley Scott studied at the Royal College of Art in London. After a brief stint as a television director in Britain he found he was given bigger budgets, and received higher pay, to make television commercials, which he proceeded to do for more than a decade. It is not generally realized that European directors almost without exception do television commercials between movies, and that even in the United States many major film-makers (Michael Cimino) have done the same kind of work, although it is rare that they advertise the fact. Ridley Scott is something of a prodigy in this area. He has directed over 3,000 television commercials, for everything from Levis to Chanel perfume. And, perhaps most interesting, for more than ten years he ran his own thriving company, employing five directors to work under him full time. He is, oddly enough, a successful business man.

One of my long-standing complaints about most of the stars of Hollywood (both the star actors and the star directors) is that they are the highest paid people in the world who still think of themselves as workers. They have little experience of hierarchical authority, nor do they often identify with it, and when they have authority they frequently exercise it capriciously. When they start their own film companies (Francis Coppola), they usually run them like children. I am entertained by the notion that Ridley Scott’s realistic touch might have been conditioned to some extent by the fact that year after year, in the most humdrum way imaginable, he has been required, as they say, to meet a payroll. It is a requirement that inculcates different habits of thought, one of which might be realism. On the other hand, I am probably reversing cause and effect. Scott probably became a success in business because he had that practical aptitude to begin with.

Although most reviewers found the tone of Blade Runner ominous, Ridley Scott is cheerful. The film is “good fun,” he says, “not too serious,” “not a warning in any sense.” He says suggestively that he doesn’t choose to adopt the warning mode “at the moment.” It all leaves me wondering what Ridley Scott has on his mind to warn us about. Having polished off mortality, the life eternal, and all that, what will he have to say when he gets serious?

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