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Bladerunner
Dir Ridley Scott
Michael Halmshaw

P
hillip K. Dick died in 1982, mere weeks before Blade Runner was released, although he was quoted as being very happy with a forty-minute screening that Alien director Scott showed him. Blade Runner is based loosely upon his novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and one might be inclined to assume that the film would be inferior thanks to cinema’s unfortunate history of poor book-to-film adaptations. (Especially with regards to the sci-fi genre look at what happened to I Am Legend and The Running Man – they became The Omega Man, and, ahem, The Running Man).

Although debate continues on the matter, the general consensus is that Phillip K. Dick himself would have been wholly satisfied with the full product.
Blade Runner
removes a lot from the novel and also adds; whole concepts such as the worldwide cult of Mercerism are present in script subtleties only, but Scott uses the medium to his advantage with the inclusion of occasionally glinting eyes to signify an android and of particular note is Vangelis’ understated score, full of lingering synthesisers, which induce a sense of isolation and desperation in Scott’s Los Angeles of 2019. The carefully timed notes as Deckard and Gaff travel through the city instil a sense of wonder in the viewer and provide the perfect backdrop as the music is juxtaposed with the rare sight of a burning sky – it was impossible for the novel to achieve a similar effect. The Rick Deckard of the novel is deeply introspective, vaguely depressed, and terrified of the androids and himself. Conversely, Harrison Ford’s Deckard enters following Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back with a tendency to narrow a sceptical eye in moments of doubt. The protagonist’s role is different, but not necessarily a worse performance, and he is the focus for several scenes of strikingly convincing acting, creating a performance that intentionally lacks presence and establishes his Deckard as a credible and more importantly, realistic character.

Dick famously told Scott that the little he saw of the world of Blade Runner was exactly as he’d imagined it whilst writing the novel – a dystopian wasteland populated by looming silhouette-skyscrapers, and one might wonder if Dick too had seemingly been influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. We are also shown Chinese takeaways, neon signs in Cantonese, and geisha advertising on colossal screens – Scott’s vision (reportedly influenced by a visit to Hong Kong) is still relevant as East Asia continues to ascend politically and economically, and the cultures of North America and the Far East intermingle. Blade Runner has aged surprisingly well in this respect and with regards to special effects – matte paintings are occasionally used, along with CGI, but it defies looking as primitive as many films of the time. There are a few unavoidable erroneous predictions; the prevalence of smoking depicted in the film now seems like an element of film noir rather than what we expect the future to be like if global law continues to ban it indoors.

A distinct feel of film noir is evoked by the perpetual darkness and rain, although the frantic pursuit sequences and insistence that every gun must be fired at least once give some merit to the argument that it is primarily an action film. As such, Ford’s Deckard is called out of retirement - an unwelcome and untypical cliché - to ‘retire’ several ‘replicants’ after the police department’s chief bounty hunter is unceremoniously shot (and propelled through a curiously flimsy wall) in the middle of an interview with a suspect and hospitalised. He then proceeds to locate and terminate Brian James as the emotionally fluctuating Leon, Joanna Cassidy as the stripper without much to say before she is shot in the street, and Daryl Hannah in one of her earliest roles as the apprehensive Pris. Meanwhile, he finds himself falling in love with Sean Young’s android Rachel (who manages to lack expression without being lifeless), and encountering Rutger Hauer’s feverishly desperate Roy Baty, who effortlessly swings between intimidating and comical moments.

With all of this occurring, Blade Runner still manages to convey the emptiness of Deckard’s life effectively – especially as the film removes Deckard’s desire to buy a real sheep. He has no incentive for returning to bounty hunting – and it retains a thoughtful minimalism throughout, with whole scenes devoid of dialogue and camera angles that concentrate on the actors’ expressions for longer than one might be used to. Edward James Olmos’ veteran cop Gaff appears several times, and always with a purpose; to tell Deckard something – he does this on several occasions through his use of an origami animal – and though little screen time or script is given to his character, he is probably the most intriguing person in the film. He is reflective of the slightly unconventional way in which Blade Runner approaches its own themes – we are made to think because of what is often not present. Blade Runner is simultaneously slow and fast; it is thoughtful and has action scenes on a par with contemporary efforts. Its legacy remains strong as it urges the viewer to continue contemplating long after the credits have scrolled by. Critically, whether or not Deckard is human or a replicant is never explicitly mentioned. This is what has made it a still-discussed cult classic, and why it is tragic that Philip K. Dick died before seeing the definitive edition, but strangely fitting that he only saw a part of his work on the cinema screen. It is the best adaptation of one of his novels and one must wonder what he would have thought of the others. For most fans, knowing that he wasn’t able to see Arnold Schwarzenneger in Total Recall must be a relief.

© Michael Halmshaw November 2005
email: fourthousandandninetytwo@yahoo.co.uk

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Michael is a Creative Writing Major at the University of Portsmouth

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