Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, September 19, 2015

On Fire Off The Shoulder Of Orion

 “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” ~ Roy

“I don’t get it, Tyrell. How can it not know what it is?” ~ Deckard

“Nothing is worse than having an itch you can’t scratch.” ~ Leon

“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?” ~ Gaff

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those... moments will be lost in time, like tears... in rain.” ~ Roy

 “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” ~ Rachael

“Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” ~ Deckard

The 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner has taken on a reputation as a true classic of a bleak future since its release, combining a not so distant future world and its problems with philosophical questions. Combining the genres of dystopian science fiction and film noir, the film is based on a novel by Philip Dick, and follows a burnt out lawman as he hunts artificial life forms in a not so distant future Los Angeles. There are several versions of the movie, which over time has become renowned as a classic from director Ridley Scott, who views it as his most personal film.

In 2019 Los Angeles, a retired policeman, Deckard (Harrison Ford) is brought in by his former boss, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) and his right hand man Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who have a problem. A number of replicants- bioengineered lifeforms- have come to Earth illegally. Created by a corporation that gave them short life spans, the four replicants bring violence and mayhem with them, and Deckard reluctantly takes the assignment to hunt them down and “retire” them in his old capacity as a blade runner, a lawman specifically tasked to destroy rogue replicants. Roy (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Daryl Hannah), Leon (Brion James), and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) are all out there, looking for ways to extend their lives. Deckard’s path takes him first to the Tyrell Corporation, meeting their creator, Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and his enigmatic assistant Rachael (Sean Young), who as it turns out is an experimental replicant believing herself to be human.

The original story, titled Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, was the source of much interest in adaptation for the big screen following its publication in the late 60s. Two screenwriters, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, are credited with the adaptation into a screenplay. The film resonates so strongly for many reasons, one of them being the story itself and its strong use of themes. Much of the film noir genre can be found here- the femme fatale, the morally clouded and world weary protagonist, the dark and moody cinematography, the corruption within society. The film delves into questions of ethics and moral quandaries, rather like Frankenstein, the dilemma of creating artificial life, and the hubris of not thinking through the consequences. There’s a strong streak of environmentalism here as well- the natural world is largely absent, and the world as we see it feels like a wasteland of industry and corporations (even the animals we see are artificial).

The science fiction of the story is very much playing to the dystopian, dark feel rather than the optimism of Star Trek. A society of the future seems high tech and gleaming in one area, but seedy and run down elsewhere- the surface hides the darkness within, and we’re offered hints that many people have left the Earth for off world colonies. There’s a big streak of paranoia through the film that feels particularly ominous in this day and age- the police seem everywhere, the sense of control over society feels oppressive, and yet at the same time advertising is prevalent, trying to gloss over the bleakness of the world as it is. The world seems to have become a corporatocracy (Mitt Romney would wonder why anyone finds Tyrell such a horrible person). In factoring all of these elements into the story, the film ends up asking profound questions, among them being how do we define life, which has made it a classic.

Scott’s work here is a masterpiece- an irony, given that the first released version had issues with studio interference (a narrative voiceover by Ford that both Ford and Scott disliked, a happy ending, and other issues), and thus there have been several versions released over the years. Still, one feels strongly the depth of the film and what Scott saw in the story. He and his crew create a world that is definitely dark and bleak (does it ever rain that much in L.A.?), and while, as we get closer to the year in question certain things have not come to pass (flying cars), the film does feel eerily close to what we see today- the endless advertising in cities, the invasive nature of a surveillance state, a world where corporations are given far too much leeway, the pessimism, the blending of languages, and the question of ethics in science. 

The film has a starkly industrial look to its setting- steam rising everywhere, monolithic structures, rotting architecture past its prime. It feels like a future world- albeit one we don’t want to live in, and the sets, attention to detail, production design, and special effects (which still hold up nicely even though this was effectively in the pre-digital effect age) bring all that to life. Add to that the score by Vangelis, which has both classical and futuristic influences, and the music score ends up giving the film a timeless, moody quality.

The casting choices are all well made. M. Emmet Walsh is one of those character actors you’ve seen in countless roles in movies and television, and true to the film noir influences, his Bryant is a corrupt, unprincipled man with no problem using underhanded tactics. Walsh plays to that. Olmos plays Gaff in another way- we expect one thing out of the character since he’s an underling, and yet by film’s end he surprises us. The character employs the mixture of languages most strongly in this society in the way he speaks.

William Sanderson appears as J.F. Sebastian, a designer who works with Tyrell on replicant design. He’s a lonely, eccentric man with a medical condition that makes him sympathetic to the replicants, a soft spoken man with a conscience- though too much compliance with the position life has put him into. It’s a more likable character than the man he works for. Tyrell is pretty much the only role I know Joe Turkel for (though he did appear in The Shining). The character may seem on the surface to be a success, but beneath that surface is arrogance, hubris, and cold disregard for the consequences of his actions. He’s created a race of slaves, made himself obscenely rich in the process, and lacks empathy and regard for others. It’s a chilling performance.

The group of four replicants who form the quarry of the film are written and played in different ways. Brion James gets the role of Leon, a combat replicant, and plays the character as short tempered, socially awkward, and thoroughly dangerous, blunt and hard. Joanna Cassidy’s Zhora, by contrast, is an assassin replicant, and on Earth takes steps to blend in and disappear- when we first meet her she’s blended in by standing out, oddly enough, and it’s only as Deckard interacts with her that we start to see just how dangerous she can be- what seems inviting is also cold blooded, and Cassidy plays to that.

Daryl Hannah’s Pris has an eccentric quality; the character is a pleasure model replicant (just imagine what that brings to the table), and while at times she acts like the naive innocent, there’s a craftiness underneath that, particularly in the way she manipulates Sebastian. And like the others, she’s dangerous too, a skilled fighter and treacherous in her way.

Rutger Hauer has said that Blade Runner is his favourite film of those he has had a part in, and his character Roy Batty (what an appropriate name) definitely gives him a compelling role. Violent and yet thoughtful, the character leads the other replicants, and certainly acts like a leader, decisive, flawless, and bold. There’s coldness to the character, but beneath that is something else. He acts out of concern and empathy for the others, seeking a solution to the fact that replicants have such short life spans. The replicants, it seems at times, have more compassion for each other than humans do for others, and Roy shows that; as violent and dangerous as he is, he’s not really the villain of the story. This is a being who wants to live, and his final act and final words are transformative- the audience sees him for who he is for the first time, and can feel sympathy for him. If, as an artificial life form, he’s a sort of Frankenstein’s Monster, he’s a thoughtful one, one that has more humanity than his creator.

Sean Young was early in her career at the time this film was made. Rachael when we first meets her comes across as an ice queen, cold and deliberate (not that different from Tyrell, perhaps). The cracks in the facade appear early, as Deckard uses a device to ask questions to determine if she’s a replicant (it takes the lawman more questions than he would usually need), and it leaves her shaken. Rachael’s character moves in another direction from that point on, taking actions she might well have never taken if not for meeting Deckard, and asking questions of herself. She also ends up drawn closer to Deckard in the process, and Young gives the character much more sympathy and depth as the story goes along, the proverbial ice queen showing her humanity.

A number of actors were considered and speculated on for the part of Deckard- Hampton Fancher had wrote his screenplay very much considering Robert Mitchum for the part and writing it that way. Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, and others were all possible Deckards at one point or another. Harrison Ford got the part on the recommendation of Steven Spielberg, who had just worked with him on Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and the casting was perfect. Ford brings the morally clouded world weary Deckard to life, a man who’s burned out and doesn’t want anything to do with the work he left behind. He’s callous at times, snide at other times, a bit of a wiseass. Deckard can be thoughtless, but gradually comes out of it as a better person. The way he relates to Rachael reflects that shift in the character, and Ford takes all of these elements and puts them into his performance.

Blade Runner has earned its place as a classic, not just as a science fiction film, but as a movie in general. It asks profound questions, telling a story with rich complexity and depth, and explores a dark future where morality and ethics come into question. Ridley Scott gives us a very vivid world of science fiction that feels all the more troubling when we see our own not that far off from it, and the cast gives us strongly drawn performances that make the film all that much better. It is a masterpiece in cinematic achievement.


  1. I saw this movie when it first came out and remember mostly that it was dark and gloomy and unpleasantly weird. Good review, William.

  2. I haven't seen this one in a long time. I like just about everything Harrison Ford is in.

  3. Nice review. I've never heard of this one.

  4. @Whisk: it's such a good one.

    @Lynn: very dark, gloomy, and weird!

    @Norma: me too.

    @Kelly: now that surprises me!

  5. I didn't like this movie the first time I saw it ... and loved it the second time, years later. It takes perspective, sometimes.

  6. Definitely a classic! I wonder... Now that it's 2015, will there be a remake putting it further in the future?

  7. I might watch this 'cause I like Harrison Ford (usually) but that last photo of B. Williams, sent me scrambling to the fridge for a beer! Superb!

  8. Dang, another one I haven't seen and now putting on my list to watch.


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