Monday, May 28, 2012

Blade Runner (1982)

Certainly this film is nothing new to most people who venture at all beyond the garbage currently on offer in theaters. And though I'm no film critic, I imagine that about as much ink has been spilled over this movie as about any other popular film in the past half century. So I doubt I have anything to say that hasn't been said over and over already.  Still, here are some of my own reasons for loving this movie and returning to it so often.

For one thing, I collect film soundtracks on vinyl and this is one of the crown jewels of my collection. The score is by Greek composer Vangelis, whose score for this movie is not only gorgeous but remarkable for its unique and effective integration of sounds from the different eras embraced by the movie. The score, like the rest of the film's aesthetics, has one foot in the 1930s and one in the 80s projected nearly 40 years.

I always find myself responding to a lot of things in this film.  It's a brooding parable about prejudice, dehumanization and the way that encountering another sort of person you have managed to consider inhuman can transform you -- especially when you discover and confront them in yourself, as Harrison Ford's Deckard does in the film's implied twist ending. Though they're very different movies otherwise, District 9 is another movie that excels at communicating those themes in a lot of the same ways.  And of course Blade Runner is the definitive future dystopian/sci fi adaptation of film noir.  And Harrison Ford and Sean Young are incomparable dreamboats.

Visually speaking, Blade Runner is certainly one of my favorite movies. The decay and fragmentation of the society portrayed in the film, radically alienated from its own humanity and in a perpetual state of technological vertigo, is so credible because it is communicated with some of the most unforgettable visuals in popular movies.  The stark opening frame is a good example of what I mean.  A prismatic human eye, shown in extreme close-up, swarms with reflected, artificial light.  The resulting panoramic vista is decidedly hellish, with pillars of flame projecting skyward from the jagged skyline of an industrial sector encompassing the city's horizon. 

The figure of the eye as a kind of opaque window to the soul is one of the film's dominant symbols.  For instance, the means by which Blade Runners identify outlaw replicants -- a mechanical interrogation tool called a Voight-Kampff test which measures a subject's capacity for empathic response -- tracks involuntary dilation in the subject's eye.
One of the film's eeriest scenes features two replicants conducting an interrogation of their own in which they question (then murder) a genetic design worker for the robotics and biotech corporation responsible for their creation and consignment to offworld bondage.  The replicants taunt their victim, whose specialty is eye design, by adorning him with frozen eyeballs.  When Batty finally confronts his aloof creator, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, geneticist and head of the Tyrell Corportation, he executes him by forcing his thumbs into Tyrell's eye sockets and crushing his skull.  Also, throughout the film, the eyes of artificial life forms share a tendency to glow or conspicuously reflect light, including those of Rachael and Deckard himself, who is implied to be a replicant in the film's final moments.

But, above all, Blade Runner is one of those rare movies that addresses serious existential questions in a way that doesn't come off as shallow, pretentious or bad. The moral ambiguity of the status and behavior of the replicants, as victims driven to reactionary violence from a condition of radically and artificially childlike innocence, is also really well played.

Rutger Hauer's characterization of Roy Batty, especially his immortal, half-improvised death monologue, is sublime.  Batty's final, life-defining act of mercy is the ultimate expression of his imperious strength and consummates his status as a kind of playful, agonal spirit.  To me, that scene is a poetic reflection on self-overcoming as the highest possibility inherent in the human condition, and one of the most memorable dramatic finales of any film.

After all, Batty is a "combat model," designed to serve as a soldier on the offworld colonies.  He leaves a trail of corpses in his wake on his quest to confront his maker, but his ultimate refusal to kill Deckard, who has continually suppressed his empathy and therefore (by the film's own lights) denied his own humanity in order to hunt and murder Batty's fellow replicant escapees, represents a triumph over the genetic and social conditioning brought to bear by the social order against which he rebels.  Here is the scene.

Perhaps what I like best is that Blade Runner doesn't supply any clear or easy answers to the questions it poses, including whether humanity or personhood depends on one's not being the product of genetic manipulation, the possession of empathy, or some other requirement proposed in or by the film.  Indeed, the story establishes unresolved tension between the very criteria for humanity it suggests.

For instance, the ostensibly human characters in the film consistently demonstrate less empathy for either replicants or one another than do the replicants themselves, who show mutual concern and mourn their fallen comrades despite their failure to pass the empathy test contrived by their masters.  And though Deckard is (arguably) a replicant, he manages to stifle the empathy he feels for his quarry in order to do "a man's job," in the callous words of his fellow Blade Runner Gaff (played by Edward James Olmos, of later Battlestar Galactica (2003) fame), which ironically call attention to the inadequacy of any narrowly biological criterion for "mankind" as a moral category.

In the end, humans and replicants alike are dehumanized by the godlike power to design and create life cynically wielded by Tyrell.  Scott does a fine job of conveying how suffocating and claustrophobic his L.A. of 2019 has become, where all are subject to surveillance and manipulation by the genetic and social engineers inhabiting Tyrell's pyramidal citadels that dominate the skyline.  The symbolic importance of Batty's decision to infiltrate Tyrell's stronghold and depose him therefore surpasses the obvious Frankenstein parallels, and represents a symbolic toppling of the entire social order.

There are plenty of Nietzschean overtones here, too, though they are a little muddled.  It's only after destroying the temple in which life is defiled that Batty, formerly a self-described "slave," can prefigure another way of going on.  He does by inhabiting a kind of 'second innocence' marked by an affirmation of life in the face of death, where ironic laughter and a triumph over revenge in the form of mercy, both for his enemy Deckard and the captive animal he releases as he dies, emerge as the appropriate response to impending oblivion: "...all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain."  If empathy is the favored indicator of humanity, it is not a fait accompli, but something hard-won through revolt against the systems of technocratic control that, in the film, have reduced the Earth to a murky hellscape and called its enslaved refugees back down as avenging angels to righteously dethrone their omniscient creator and put a defiant love of life in his place.

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