What the F*** is Up with "Blade Runner" (1982)? A Film Appreciation
Author's Note: Some explicit language is used to drive home a few points here.
I remember the first time I watched Blade Runner, I was deeply confused. Not necessarily by the story, but by my own expectations of a movie called Blade Runner. When you sit down to watch a 1980s film with a title like Blade Runner and it has Harrison Ford in it, you might expect something action packed, especially with a future setting like Los Angeles, 2019.
Obviously, I know a lot better now, but back when I watched The Final Cut of Blade Runner in 2010, I really had no idea about the film's legacy, its roots in Philip K. Dick, the fact that I was watching one of five versions of the film, all that stuff. I didn't know any of it, and the other thing I didn't know was that Blade Runner was essentially an atmospheric future noir film that acts as a meditation on the things that make us human.
The first time I watched Blade Runner, I was completely puzzled by it. I wasn't sure if I liked it or hated it. I certainly didn't love it, that I was sure of at the time. But on second viewing, I fell in love with Blade Runner. Knowing what to expect made the difference and on repeat viewings while I was in high school. I dove deep into the behind the scenes stories of the film's development. It was the first time I ever listened to commentary tracks for a movie up to that point in my life, even listening to a commentary from the visual effects artists that worked on the film. I even read the Philip K. Dick novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep back then too (I'm going to say right now that I have a hazy recollection of the novella, a fact which may or may not have a big influence on the rest of my writing here).
It wasn't until this week leading up to the release of Blade Runner 2049 that I realized I hadn't seen the whole film from end to end in literally years. I'd re-watched bits and pieces over the years in film school, but never the whole thing. So, before I see Blade Runner 2049 tonight in IMAX, I wanted to look back on the original film from end to end and see what I thought.
I obviously still love it but... Let's just say I'd forgotten about some stuff. Like, this line of dialogue:
"Ladies and gentlemen... Taffey Lewis presents... Miss Salome and the snake. Watch her take the pleasures from the serpent... that once corrupted man."
I forgot there's a part where it's implied that a replicant fucks a snake off camera.
I'd also forgotten a lot of the weirdness that permeates the film to its core, some of the weirdness kind of hilarious and some of it... Not so much. So, I decided to list off a few things that really struck me about Blade Runner after all of these years of having not seen it.
1. J.F. Sebastian's Toys
The character of J.F. Sebastian is a take on the character John Isidore from the original novella, and while Isidore and Sebastian are both lonely men in a dilapidated apartment building, they are radically different characters, but especially in one key aspect: The toys.
J.F. Sebastian in the film helps design the androids for Tyrell, and since he lives on his own he makes toy automatons as his companions. And they are morbidly horrifying to look at. Besides the little man with mustache that growls off in the corner of a scene where Pris examines Sebastian while he sleeps, there's also the teddy bear dressed in a Napoleon outfit that greets Pris when she walks into the apartment for the first time.
What amazes me about Sebastian's toys are that they were completely created for the film. There's not an inkling of the toys in the novella which means that one of the writers just really wanted to put a bunch of creepy automaton dolls into a sci-fi movie and dammit he was going to do it. On top of all that weirdness, there's actually a reference to Fantasia hidden among all the toys in the form of an ostrich wearing a ribbon around its neck, taken from the "Dance of the Hours" segment.
The obvious answer to all of these questions is that it's an amazing opportunity for artists to craft a creepy environment for the finale, except that they only use it for a few scenes. Most of the final cat and mouse games of Deckard versus Roy Batty take place across the rest of the complex. That being said, the scene where Pris hides among the toys in the super wide shot of Deckard creeping his way across the room as a toy clown repeatedly laughs is one of the most memorable things I've ever seen in a movie.
So it was all worth it, whatever there reasoning was for having the toys there in the first place.
2. Deckard Pretending to Represent the Entertainment Industry
Let's get back to Zhora taking pleasures from the serpent that once corrupted man. The scene that follows that involves Deckard infiltrating Zhora's dressing room by pretending to be from a union for entertainers. Beyond the lighting and style of the film, this might be the most "noir" scene in the film in the classic 1940s sense (beyond all of the scenes where Deckard is constantly drinking liquor).
What makes the scene really stand out though is Deckard's voice. For some reason, he affects a higher pitched voice and puts on a dumb smirk for the whole scene, trying to to pretend he's someone he's not. In a film that seems to be made almost entirely from weird decisions, it manages to stick out as bizarre.
I don't have a lot to say about this other than that, again, it really sticks out. Deckard has always been a weird character that doesn't get enough credit for being bizarre. Maybe it's because he's surrounded by androids for the whole film that can't express emotions correctly, but he's essentially an alcoholic android hunter that has dreams about unicorns and has a piano he never plays in his crowded apartment. Again, the only thing that makes him seem normal in that context is that one of the only other apartments we see in the film has the aforementioned Fantasia ostrich just hanging around in the background.
But if I'm going to joke about Deckard, we have to address something else too. Something darker, nastier, and crueler. It's a subject without any humor too it, but it's worth talking about.
3. Deckard is a Piece of Shit
Let's go with the slightly easier to cope with example of this, the scene where Deckard tells Rachael she's a Replicant. You can blame this scene on Deckard being a bit of an asshole, but he literally rips apart a characters' reality in seconds and ruins her life. Again, you can make arguments that Rachael would have figured it out soon enough and that Deckard does seem to show regret for what he's done, so we can let it slide.
What I'm not going to let slide though is the "Kiss me" scene.
If you ask fans of Blade Runner the question "What bothers you about Blade Runner as a film?," there's an extremely high chance that this scene will come up. It's baffling, upsetting, tone-deaf, and creepy all at once. Back in 2010 when I originally watched the film, it brought the whole film to a screeching halt for me. And in 2017, it still brought the film to a screeching halt.
Despite feeling that way, I'd never really looked into the scene that much, but I recently found a clip of an interview with Sean Young, the actress for Rachael, back in 1982, conducted by John Tibbetts. To my surprise, Tibbetts specifically asked about the scene and Sean Young attempted to articulate what the film was going for. What follows is an extremely uncomfortable answer to say the least, one that you should watch here (skip to 5:12 for the question if the link doesn't automatically take you there).
Let me say with no ambiguity that the idea that Deckard has to teach an android love through violence is one of the most fucked up things I've ever heard in my life. I understand what they're going for, but the concept of teaching intimacy should have been handled with (literal) delicate hands, not by throwing Rachael against a door and kissing her as she cries. And despite any attempts by the music to indicate otherwise through synthesizer saxophones that what we're seeing has transitioned back into romance, it's not.
It's fucking horrifying.
I don't think you have to see Deckard as a pure heroic character mind you, he's obviously deeply flawed and scarred by what he's seen and done over the years. But there was no reason to take him to such a dark place.
I want to reiterate that I really enjoy Blade Runner, it's a visual masterpiece that has influenced over thirty five years of films, TV shows, comic books, novels, and more. It's also worth taking apart that legacy every once and a while to take a look at it. The film is singularly strange in ways that are good and extremely bad, and that strangeness is what separates Blade Runner from the various media that has either paid homage or imitated it over the decades. On the eve of its sequel releasing to mainstream audiences, I wanted to visit that legacy one more time before its changed by the existence of a sequel forever.
Denis Viileneuve, let's see what you've got.