The beautiful grime in Blade Runner challenges you to find humanity in the mechanism of our future, humanity which Scott omits. So we search the frigid replicants for their ghosts, as much as we search the humans. These working machines are now illegal on earth, owing to the existential conundrum of their emotions. To be clear: the emotions could be theirs if we let them live long enough, and so the conundrum is ours.
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The establishing shot that opens Blade Runner could not be less spatially establishing. It has no location, no relative space. Its constructions are purely visionary, as the Emerald or Dark City were less places than images of the idea of them. Ridley Scott’s L.A. 2019 is dusky and industrial, but not angry. It has no fury – it wallows in its own awe, a neon hive of impersonal passersby. It’s a corporate Babel of which Fritz Lang could only dream, horrific and stark and primordially cold. It’s covered in smoke and dressing room mirrors. Vangelis’ sounds are as much a theme as an elegy, for a world both thriving with life and unmistakably deceased. And it’s always, always raining.
I can’t recall a film more obsessed with details and yet less studious to the particulars of its own visual logic. Scott’s aesthetic systems are collaborative, stuffed with ornamentation, secrets, and shadows. But one place doesn’t connect to another: mise-en-scène in Scott’s 2019 is full of spatial inequities and nonsense. You don’t know where that husky conversation over a bowl of noodles in an alleyway fits in relation to Tyrell’s Mayan fortress, or Deckard’s drowsy apartment. The spaces ramble in Scott films, like monologues. The streets in Blade Runner are visual narrations, dreamy, disjunct, and impersonal. They are flawed by the standards of logic.
But in their mean construction they are correlative to noir, taking the uncertainty of a hardboiled man on soggy streets and propounding it into visual design.
Why is film noir such a fertile style for the future? The original cut of Blade Runner even had dusky narration by Harrison Ford, collaborating with John Huston and Dashiell Hammett to see a nebulous billboard projecting a Coke ad onto the cloud-line as just a symptom of a people that drinks too much. Was The Maltese Falcon any less about a mechanical man roaming his own mental alleyways and almost learning to love? The spiritual uncertainty is palpable. In each case, the cinematic loneliness draws rooms that don’t add up with streets hanging out in nowhere, the nightclubs full of shadow selves. The effect is as engrossing as the narrations are unnecessary.
The practical effects grant the perspective of an overseer (or a reader) that the narration strives for – a model effect makes you feel above it, above something warped and roamed by human hands long before you got there. Scott’s direction, Dan O’Bannon’s script, and H. R. Giger’s architecture porn made a tauter nightmare in Alien, a visual corkscrew scream of sexual repression. With Blade Runner, Scott has more vision and almost nothing else. He takes effects master Douglas Trumbull and, after 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, gleans from him his best work. With Vangelis’ frothy tones he injects the future with an undiluted shot of electronic neo-noir. Every aspect is a miniature of the whole, and every second like the veins of a leaf, a simulation of the big picture. But plot and character disappear like fungus on a monolith.
The beautiful grime in Blade Runner challenges you to find humanity in the mechanism of our future, humanity which Scott omits. So we search the frigid replicants for their ghosts, as much as we search the humans. These working machines are now illegal on earth, owing to the existential conundrum of their emotions. To be clear: the emotions could be theirs if we let them live long enough, and so the conundrum is ours. Blade Runners find them in crowds and kill them, according to the forthright text roll-up that begins the film. “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” someone asks Deckard, someone who turns out to be a replicant, built by a businessman so icy and calculating that you fear he must be human.
Deckard (Harrison Ford) is the best runner because he can always spot a replicant in a would-be human. Blade Runner is about discovering how to do the reverse. Deckard loves Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant who imagined she grew up, who never knew that her love of life was a pacemaker made by a deified toy man. But she must be less than four years old, at which time she might climb to the edge of some understanding mankind believes, if it thought to believe, will make them lose the human race. “I have seen things,” the replicant leader called Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) laments. He says it at the apex of a moonlit hunt in the rain, an absurd, primordially masculine romp across a future that turns suddenly into a desperate stage for the emotions of an object, that threatens through experiences alone to grow a soul. He becomes Hamlet by way of Amazing Stories.
We have searched through countless religions to find one that creates and supports human beings – what religion remains when humanity is inevitable? Was it Tyrell’s (Joe Turkel) directive to kill God? Was it Scott’s? The Voight-Kampff test uses questions of burdensome emotional complexity to separate mechanical machines from biological ones. I would be curious to give any religion such a test. I would be curious to give it to Blade Runner, to test the whole as it tests its own parts, and discover whether it is circuits and celluloid and insta-dry model glue, or something else, something emergent and dangerous and almost human.
Every room in Blade Runner is a cosmos. Tyrell’s conference room has the deep-set golds and blacks of a Renaissance painting. Its edges are pure Jungian geometry, as though the room is a corollary to his mind. J. F. Sebastian’s (William Sanderson) high-rise apartment is equally a corollary to his mosaic of hurt – as he is a young mind in an old man’s body, the roof leaks on his cracked dolls and wind-up ghosts of ideas of men. And then there’s Deckard’s apartment, appropriate in almost any century, a wind-blown fury of files and photographs. It is another monument to another mind, but in this case the hardened, memorial scrapbook mind of a former detective who lives in a future where anything is possible and who spends his nights a wall away from incalculable technology drinking too much.
Deckard is immortally, psychosomatically private. He is a perfect match for this future, a place of a silent decrepitude that seems to have no cause, no before-time. The text at the beginning, which should be the film’s ground floor, is an architectural non-sequitur, a column that holds no weight. Scott never emphasizes the possible causes of the world’s torment or reins in its terrors with history, as he never gives a single character a trauma to explain the scarring around their eyes. Like Deckard, we become obsessed with hidden relevance and twitches of meaning. I find myself staring at eyes during this film, at Leon (Brion James), who mystifyingly seems to hold some hurtful past he could not possibly have, or at the outright frigidity of Hauer’s piercing loftiness (Pauline Kael said once that he’s who Hitler would cast for his own biopic).
The film is impersonal and dreary, a case file without a beating heart. Scott reserves no feelings of happiness or sorrow for anyone: Sebastian perishes without more pathos than was hanging under his eyes. Rachael does not discover her humanness, or flinch from her coolly towering parody of working women circa Dietrich. And Deckard has no warmth in loving a machine, nothing to prove, nothing to relate. It is an un-wearying cosmos of apathy that Scott has made, or mechanized, without a single human intention.
And that’s what makes it special. Blade Runner is a film whose mechanisms hang out like clockwork guts but whose spirit remains hidden in plain sight, as emotions hide in eyes. Rachael mechanically plays at the piano and Scott doesn’t give her a laugh or tarnish her with immediacy. You must see a machine going through the motions of being human. You must ask, if people were all warm and soulful and wonderful, would we really need Blade Runners?
The people in the old noirs were never more realistic. They smoked by nature: in the future, the only reason to do so is to shroud, transform, obscure. This future is as generally ungraspable, and as alluring, as the question of why you are who you are. The human ghost, that stuff that dreams are made of, is the center of Blade Runner while having no voice and no presence. It is a micron above the spiritual asymptote below which Batty dies; for Tyrell it is nothing but a distant memory. And for Deckard, who has no idea who he is, it’s a floating and unnecessary byproduct of another time, like smog in rain. Of all the characters in all the movies who have ever struggled to discover who they are, Deckard most enthusiastically believes it wouldn’t matter if he ever found out.
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All images are screenshots from the film.