The pictorially stunning new science-fiction detective thriller "Blade Runner," opening today at area theaters, certainly reflects the description forecast by director Ridley Scott: "A film set 40 years hence, made in the style of 40 years ago."
However, this flamboyant attempt by the director of "The Duellists" and "Alien" to synthesize an ominous, futuristic setting with the motley cliche's of hard-boiled detective fiction is at best a freakish success.
Ironically, the movie seems to duplicate the topheavy architectural pattern seen in its metropolis of the future, identified as Los Angeles in 2019. Just as a dazzling new generation of skyscrapers and hovercraft ascend from the crumbling depths of an older city, the exotic design elaborated by Scott and his colleagues--notably the illustrator Syd Mead, special effects supervisors Douglas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, production designer Lawrence G. Paull and art director David L. Snyder--rests on an outmoded, decaying foundation of melodramatic devices. Far from transcending this qualitative difference, "Blade Runner" begins to look rather grotesque, like an acrobatic dancer whose seams rip in the act of performing a split.
Identifying the city as L.A. seems inexplicably arbitrary. The source material, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," a 1968 novel by the late, revered science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was set in San Francisco. Although the movie makes ingenious use of two authentic L.A. architectural landmarks--George Wyman's Bradbury Building, which becomes a virtually abandoned apartment building, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis Brown house, which provides the fac,ade of Rick Deckard's (Harrison Ford) residence--its awesome, teeming, rain-drenched metropolis was fabricated for the most part on a New York street set at Burbank Studios and appears to be a bizarre pastiche of Times Square, Hong Kong, Mexico City and Tokyo. According to Mead in a fascinating interview in the May issue of the film periodical Starlog, New York was the basic urban model during production. The most imposing structures on this fanciful skyline--a gigantic set of twin pyramids inspired by Aztec temples--suggest a project designed to trump the World Trade Center and the Transamerica Building simultaneously.
The contradictions that plague the movie are apparent from the outset. A sinister rumbling theme by Vangelis, the Oscar-winning composer from "Chariots of Fire," underscores a stupendous opening panorama of the city at night, with flames leaping from minarets that one presumes to be refinery towers, spacecraft skimming about and the Big Pyramids looming into view. When the vantage point shifts to the mean, sodden streets at the base of this colossal city, Harrison Ford is discovered perusing a newspaper (evidently print will remain, along with such familiar adornments to life as Coca-Cola and Hare Krishnas) and seeking refreshment at a sidewalk sushi bar. What's on his mind? Well, an excessively revealing voice-over narration insists on making his stream-of-consciousness an open book.
"They don't advertise for killers in the newspaper," Ford informs us in a weary monotone. "That was my profession. Ex-cop, ex-blade runner, ex-killer." Deep thoughts also reverberate on the subject of his repast: "Sushi. That's what my ex-wife called me. Cold fish."
. Invariably overexplicit, the narration tells you more than you want to know and probably need to know, despite the murkiness of certain aspects of the plot.
It also does a considerable amount of unjustified special pleading on behalf of the protagonist. For example, when Deckard is persuaded to return to the bounty-hunting profession he professes to abhor, he's allowed an irrelevant burst of moral superiority at the expense of his superior in the police department, played by M. Emmet Walsh: "In history books he's the kind who used to call black men 'niggers.' " Among other things, this dig calls attention to a curious scarcity of blacks in the street scenes, where the oriental touches tend to suggest that Chinatown has become the whole town.
A "blade runner" is a special detective empowered to apprehend and "retire," i.e. execute, fugitive humanoids known as "replicants," the product of advances in genetic engineering that make it possible to manufacture synthetic humans from organic cell tissue. Lured back to the force, ex-ace Deckard is assigned an emergency case, the capture of four renegade replicants who murdered their owners on a space colony and remain at large somewhere in the city. While tracking down this fearsome foursome, led by Rutger Hauer, who cuts a sensational demonic figure as a killer replicant named Roy Batty, Deckard encounters a fifth replicant, Sean Young as a docile '40s vamp called Rachel, and falls for her in a big way. "Replicants weren't supposed to have feelings. Neither did blade runners," Deckard ruminates out loud. "What was happening to me?"
Since the fugitive replicants are more powerful and agile physical specimens than Deckard, his working problems are aggravated by the scruples that arise from also having a guilty conscience and feeling susceptible to Rachel.
Although extremely effective as baroque, superhuman menaces--much better than the alien trio in "Superman II," for instance--the runaway replicants (Ford must elude mortal injury from Joanna Cassidy, Brion James and Daryl Hannah before confronting the majestic Hauer in a grisly, elaborately anticlimactic showdown) fail to evoke the pathos that the filmmakers also hope to generate. Indeed, it seems downright daft to brandish them as creepy sociopaths most of the time and then get all choked up over their latent, thwarted finer impulses. Ultimately, Batty is envisioned in a way that resembles the delusions famous writers sometimes get about convicted murderers: deadly, of course, but ennobled by a touch of the poet.
It's even more difficult to accept Rachel with a straight face on the terms presented. Sean Young can't be faulted for this emotional discrepancy. It's not her fault that Rachel Ward embodies a deliberately funny version of the same archetype in "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," an image that tends to carry over to this supposedly serious romantic context. While dolling Young up in campy, almost comic-strip '40s features--big, big bangs; red, red lips; severely tailored suits and overwhelming fur coats--Scott might not have realized that her character would emerge as something less than human and irresistibly silly. The most mechanical presence in the story, Rachel never seems responsive enough to arouse and inspire the disillusioned hero. The happily-ever-after hint at the fadeout also seems to contradict an earlier sequence which makes no sense unless Deckard is painfully aware that Rachel's lifespan is strictly limited.
Moviegoers familiar with the Dick novel may recognize the source of this apparent slip-up. In the book Deckard's key emotional partner was his despondent wife. Deckard was drawn into an affair with an android named Rachel, but she was never perceived as a plausible mate. On the contrary, she eventually did him wrong and had a lethal double on the loose. "Blade Runner" plummets when it contrives its cross-species love story.
Dick's framework might be guessed from random illustrative details in "Blade Runner," but it's no longer a controlling factor. The movie might just as well be happening in a future of simultaneous urban decay and hi-tech advancement that evolved without the specific impetus of a global catastrophe. Unfortunately, the loss of this context leaves the filmmakers at a thematic loss. They try to compensate with a dense, brilliant scenic texture, but it still doesn't compensate for the lost, or at least misplaced, context.