Is a movie great if it looks great? There aren’t many great movies that don’t look great, but how much wrong-decision do good looks buy? Blade Runner is known as a great movie predominately because it invented a look for the future. And no question, it has to be the best looking sci-fi movie of all time. But y’know, there’s a lot about Blade Runner that doesn’t work. I know it might be heresy to say this but… the love story sucks, the pacing is off, and Sean Young is robotic, even for a robot. So are good looks enough? I think of Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 (another handsome, robots and cigarettes movie). My god I hated 2046. Is Blade Runner any better?
In the year 2019 (as imagined from 1982, and even then – they were reaching) mankind has largely decamped Earth and robots are used as slave labour. For reasons that are never entirely explained: robots live only four years; are forbidden from setting foot on Earth and are routinely implanted with fake memories of childhood (to make a four year life-span more bearable). These robots are not like Robbie the Robot or Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still; they look human. Four of them decide to risk coming to Earth to meet their maker, the robot designer Eldon Tyrell. They “want more life”. Harrison Ford, a “blade runner” (or robot killer), is sent to hunt them down.
2046 might seem like a strange comparison to make when discussing Blade Runner, but I can’t think of another recent movie that has B.R.’s ennui. To think what the film studio must have thought: that this was supposed to be a thriller (Han Solo vs. The Terminator!) You never get any sense that Ford is chasing these robots, or of the desperation they must feel. Rather, Blade Runner plays like a Wong Kar Wai movie, where everyone is either sad all the time, or drunk. Motivation is like the score, tangential; everyone’s lost in giant thoughts, too awed for speed. Even when Ford shoots his first robot, she dies in slow-motion, t-u-m-b-l-i-n-g to her death, stringing it out.
The name Blade Runner is of course a marketing idiom. It doesn’t fit with what Ford does, or the movie he’s in. Ford is playing the gumshoe-role in a Raymond Chandler story; he’s not an Arnold Schwartzenegger-wannabe. He’s got a grizzled boss, a rich eccentric leading him astray, a beautiful daughter-type (Sean Young) making goo-goo eyes, and a smooth-talking antagonist (Rutger Hauer)… “blade-running” these guys won’t get him anywhere. So he smokes. And he drinks. He talks tough to the dame and gets beaten up by the hoods. He’s so Bogart in some parts of Blade Runner, you half-expect Lauren Bacall to whistle at him. Shame it’s Sean Young.
Sean Young is rubbish in Blade Runner. Given that a lot of the plot depends on her; that hurts Blade Runner quite a bit. The trouble is: she’s a robot. Not her character (she is), but Sean Young, I mean. You can practically hear her sprockets clink. Her love story with Ford is badly written from the get-go. But at least Ford acts. Young has trouble walking convincingly. And that’s a pity, because Harrison Ford is good. Ford is at his best playing crotchety good-guys. Think of Witness, Frantic, Presumed Innocent, The Mosquito Coast. Ford needs to be a bit of bastard, it works for him. Make him goody-good and he plateaus. Bile inspires him.
Think of Blade Runner and you think of Blade Runner… as a look, a style, Blade Runner-chic: the sky is dark, the rain unrelenting, coronas of light wheel round flying cars. It’s not an entirely original vision; Ridley Scott took bits from Metropolis, bits from Alphaville, the feel of Raymond Chandler’s L.A., a little from Alien (though, granted, that was his). What Ridley did was make this vision beautiful. There isn’t a frame of Blade Runner you couldn’t hang on your wall. It’s not a happy vision, nor an especially deep one, but my god – whatever 2046 wanted to be, Blade Runner is. Crappy love story and patchy detective work aside, it’s still a great movie.