Reviewed By NORMAN SPINRAD
Admission number one: my admiration for Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids
Dream of Electric Sheep?, the stupid name-change inflicted upon the
film version, the despicable fact that Phil Dick's name does not appear
in ads and posters for Blade Runner which manage to plug the sound
track album, foolish and insane public statements by Ridley Scott and Hampton
Fancher, and bad word of mouth in the science-fiction writing community
all conspired to send me into the theater expecting a bummer.
Admission number two: far from being a turkey, a case could be made
for Blade Runner as the best science-fiction film of the past decade,
and certainly of the post-Star Wars crop.
For one thing, despite Ridley Scott's awshucks-I'm-really-just-doing-a-simple-adventure-film
posturing, Blade Runner is very much a film for adults, intelligent
sophsiticated adults at that, and runs into most of its troubles only when
it, Scott, or the studio forgets this.
The plot itself is extremely simple. Rick Deckard is a cop of sorts
in a future megalopolis. His job is to hunt down four escaped "replicants,"
that is, androids with deliberately shortened lifespans manufactured for
off-world use. He succeeds in slaying ("retiring") three of them, more
or less falling in love with a fifth replicant, Rachel, in the process.
Roy Batty, the fourth and most dangerous replicant, has Deckard at his
mercy as he, Batty, is about to die, but decides to let Deckard live. Deckard
runs off with Rachel. Fade out.
Now if this were really an action-adventure film of the Star Wars
or even ALIEN variety, I would have just blown it for you by
revealing the whole plot. But that's not what Blade Runner is at
all. What Blade Runner is, despite all protests to the contrary,
is basically a film verison of Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric
Scott claims to have never read the book. This may or may not be true,
but it is obvious that the screenwriters, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples,
read the book. Blade Runner is certainly not a literal retelling
of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; settings, characters, plot
elements, and so forth have all been altered. But the core of the novel,
the essential story, is the core of the film. The intellectual level of
the screenplay and its perceived audience are both much closer to the intent
of Dick than to "action-adventure" and the theme and its mode of expression
are intellectually and spiritually true to the novel to an impressive degree.
Deckard, the replicant killer, comes to see replicants as human. The replicants
themselves, though they are designed to be emotionless, develop human feelings,
and ultimately human empathy. What is a human? Answer: a sentient being
capable of empathy for other sentient beings. What is a less-than-human
android in both Dickian terms and in terms of the film? Answer: a sentient
being, whether born of man and woman, or manufactured, who is incapable
of feeling empathy for another sentient being.
In addition to being true in essence to the novel despite public statements
to the contrary, Blade Runner, despite more public statements to
the contrary, is truer to what science fiction is all about than just about
any "SF film" yet made. Scott (and here we are definitely dealing with
the creative contribution of the director) has created the most dense,
detailed, and fully realized future world ever put on film.
The world in question is a peculiar 21st Century Los Angeles, which
basically exists in three layers. At the top are huge monolithic megabuildings
apparently done by Douglas Trumbull in typical Trumbull high tech style-this
is literally upper class corporate country. In the middle is middle class
residential territory, seen mostly as interiors. At the bottom is the prole
country of the streets, by far the most interesting and densely-realized
Despite the declaration that this is the Los Angeles of the future
(and I refuse to believe that any culture would be idiotic enough to attempt
building all those 200 floor buildings in an Earthquake zone, or that it
would be even possible given LA's geology), it feels like a Japonified
version of New York or Chicago, indeed in many ways it seems like a future
Tokyo itself. The streets are crowded and grubby, people dressed in many
exotic styles, the first multicultural future city I have ever seen
even attempted on film. Familiar ads for Coca-Cola, Atari, and Citizen
are montaged with exotic oriental neon, exactly like the Ginza or Rappongi.
Japanese fast food joints. A disreputable quarter of artificial animal
merchants. A Soho-cum-Ginza-bar club you'd just love to debauch yourself
in. Detail piled upon detail piled upon detail-a true masterpiece of design
which makes any previous attempt at anything like a future city scene simply
look ludicrous by comparison.
These three levels are tied together by multileveled walkways, flying
cars, elevators, and this huge ponderously hovering ad display vehicle
flashing incomprehensible Japanese commercials, Coca-Cola ads, and propaganda
designed to persuade people to move off world.
Ridley Scott's long experience making TV commercials really works to
advantage here; the scenes of this world have the density of detail of
a myriad of 60 second commercials all strung together for an effect of
incredible cinematic density. The overall cinematic style of the film is
also heavily influenced by Scott's TV commercial background. Virtually
every shot is framed like a piece of a commercial, with outer angles, bizarre
atmospheric lighting, the omnipresent (and scientifically unexplained)
rain and gloom, and music designed to highlight key dialogue. There is
hardly a shot in the film that is not such a self-contained set-piece,
hardly a shot given over to simply photographed interaction between actors,
hardly a shot without in trinsic cinematic interest independent of the
story. It is a lovely cinematic treat, shot-for-shot.
Which is as good a segue as anything into the flaws that do exist in
Blade Runner and from whence they arose, since it is apparent that
no one is more aware of this than Ridley Scott himself. Scott has said
that he worked closely, "totally," with the film editor, Terry Rawlings,
so the ponderous pace of the editing must be laid at least in large part
on his doorstep. The montage is virtually flawless, sequentially, but many,
all too many, sequences seem to go' on far too long, as if Scott, enamored
of his own cinematic brilliance (justly enamored), cannot bear not
to linger overlong on the pretty pictures he is painting. This not only
makes the overall film move more slowly than it should, it affects the
dialogue, making it far too artificial and stagey in places.
It is a curious aspect of the film that there are hardly any scenes
where the actors are actually working intimately off each other. The atmospherics,
the staging, the cutaways, the music, the cinematics, all seem to get in
the way of this. Since this is a film about alienation and finally empathy,
it is possible that this is an intended statement for the most part, but
surely this does not apply to the stilted and artificial love scene between
Deckard and Rachel, nor to the final controntation between Deckard and
Roy Batty, shown almost entirely without dialogue twoshots. Scott seems
to be trying to tell the whole story cinematically (like commercials) and
in general this works. But Scott himself or someone in the studio above
him seemed unconvinced of this, adding truly terrible voice-over narration
in key areas to "explain" what has already been told cinematically. One
example will more than suffice, since it is the ending of the film. After
Batty's death, Deckard is confronted by his blade runner partner, a man,
who, throughout the film is shown leaving little bits of origami everywhere.
"Are you through?" he asks Deckard.
"I hope she's worth it. Too bad she won't live. But then, who does?"
Cut to Deckard's apartment, where he finds Rachel covered by a sheet
in such a way that neither he nor the audience can tell whether she is
alive or dead. She s alive. They flee. As they do, we see her foot kick
a little origami figure left on the floor. We see Deckard pick it up and
study it. Cut to the two of them flying over the first green land and blue
sky we have seen in the film.
Get it? Well someone thought you wouldn't. One's intelligence is instead
insulted by voiceover narration by Deckard explaining that his partner
must have been in the apartment and chosen to let Rachel live. Worse, far
worse, the narration then goes on the undercut the most powerful line of
dialogue in the whole film: "Too bad she won't live. But then, who does?"
Deckard explains that in fact Rachel is different from the other replicants
in that she doesn't have a preprogrammed life-span, as if the tragedy,
which, by a single brilliant line of dialogue has become the tragedy of
our human mortality, is simply too real to leave in for the audience.
What went wrong to mar what is on balance a brilliant film? Certainly
not the acting. Harrison Ford is fine in the rather undemanding role
of Deckard, there isn't a bit player who fails to
be convincing, and Rutger Hauer is brilliant as Roy Batty and deserves
an Oscar for best supporting actor. When the acting ensemble is this good,
you certainly can't fault the director for being unable to extract good
In a peculiar way, the title change epitomizes the problem. Admittedly
Do Adnroids Dream of Electric Sheep? wouldn't make it on a theater
marque, particularly if the creative team insisted on using "replicants"
instead of "androids" because no one involved seemed to know the difference
between an android and a robot. Blade Runner was the title of an
Alan Nourse novel about smugglers of medical supplies and underground doctors
in a future world which has nothing whatever to do with this one. Rights
to the title were bought because somebody thought it was snappy. Deckard
is called a "blade runner" solely to justify the title, and it makes no
internal sense whatever, since he is a hunter, not a quarry, and since
no one ever refers to replicants as "blades."
As this nonsense must have been imposed by the studio, or at least
by studio-type thinking, so too the narration, which seems to be nothing
more than an attempt to speak down to an audience which is perceived as
not intelligent enough to understand the film without it. Fancher, the
to-author of the screenplay, is listed as executive producer, but he was
working on the script through many rewrites directed by Scott, who also
controlled the editing. In other words, there does not seem to have been
anyone on the creative team with both the insight and power to tell Scott
when he was making a mistake. Scott had the screenplay written to his specs,
shot the film, and then controlled the editing. The film would have been
much improved if another creative talent had sat above Scott in the editing
process. And if it wasn't Scott who imposed the voiceover narration,
whoever did is a Phillistine. Even now, the film could be mightily
improved some day upon rerelease simply by cutting out all the narration.
It remains to be seen how Blade Runner will do at the box office,
but if it is not the commercial success it deserves to be, it wild because
the dumb title, the cynical commercial tie-in campaign, and the absence
of the public imprimateur of Philip K. Dick alieniated the film's real
audience-sophisticated intelligent adults, not Star Wars and Star
Perhaps Scott or the studio think they were being clever by trying
to publican disassociate the film from "science fiction," from Phil Dick's
novel, from being something beyond "action-adventure."
Whether this commercial strategy turn out to be commercially correct
or not, it is bloody well untrue. Blade Runner is an essentially
true translation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it is
a serious film for adults, and it is more of a real science-fiction film
than just about anything else has been. Flaws and all, it is a minor masterpiece
at the least, and anyone looking for a real science fiction film
of truly serious intent should go see it.