Dir. Ridley Scott, US/Hong Kong, 1982, 117 mins
Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Daryl Hannah
Review by Ash Verjee
There is a moment in Mike Bartlett’s adaptation of Hugh Hudson’s Chariots Of Fire, currently playing in the Hampstead Theatre as a theatrical Olympic tie-in, where come the play’s closing moments, the characters launch into Parry’s Jerusalem. The organ crescendos and they build towards the last line – “In England’s green and pleasant… land” – the final word segueing seamlessly into Vangelis’ glorious and rich bass note from his theme to the 1981 film. Over the next three minutes, period athletes are joined on stage by characters wearing the contemporary Stella McCartney strip as they limber up in a wonderfully choreographed wordless epilogue. There are arguably only two bits of film score that give me goosebumps. Real goosebumps I mean, the kind you feel on the back of your neck that give you collywobbles with thrilldoms of pure joy. One is that bass note from Chariots. The other is Vangelis’ synth-glissando and percussive rumble that introduces us to 2019’s dystopian LA in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
It’s stately – that first slow zoom into the smog, pollution and darting lights. Almost regal. It’s a sumptuous imagining of a hellish landscape that draws you in instead of keeping you out. Actually, Vangelis’ major-key theme and Douglas Trumbell’s soft, rippling optical effects of the city and flying Spinners offer one of the most lyrical, romanticized movie openings I’ve ever seen.
The film’s premise is simple, though rich with allegory about life and humanity. In the future, mankind has created genetically engineered humans for off-world slave-labour called Replicants. Following a mutiny, a special police task-force assigns officers roles as Blade Runner – charged with ‘retiring’ any Replicants who may have returned to Earth in search of a way to extend their meagre four-year lifespan. Protagonist Deckard’s (Ford) investigation leads him to the source of Replicant manufacture the Tyrell Corporation and the enigmatic Rachel, the unaware flagship model of the experiment. Scott’s film blends classic Film Noir tropes with spectacular production-design futurism into something that’s narratively recognisable and cogent, but visually (for its time) way ahead of any cinematic depictions of the future that came before.
Like Scott’s own Alien in 1979, this is light years away from Kubrick’s Apple Inc. polished white polycarbonate vision in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even the clean-cut Americana of the Star Wars universe. Here, we’re pretty much in perpetual darkness, the sky so polluted and irradiated by our industrial waste. Borders have broken down resulting in an overcrowded, ethnically diverse population. Tech is advanced but clunky to use and unimaginatively designed. The streets are rife with black-market traders. There is precious little sense of the plant or animal life that once existed. Even the Far-Eastern junk-like blimps that float across the sky advertise a better life awaiting those who leave Earth. That said, there are wonderful little anachronistic touches here and there, links back to a culture past. Most memorably, and in a scene that is indeed completely about memory and recollection, a piano sits in Deckard’s apartment adorned with black and white photos, sheet music, brass ornaments and Art Deco lamps. The attention to detail is exquisite. Rachel sits at the instrument and begins to play, her music tonally overlapping with the score. Deckard sits beside her. “I didn’t know if I could play. I remember lessons…” Rachel says, sadly, uncertain of what or who she is. Are these real memories, or merely synaptic implants inserted in an attempt to make her more human than human? This may be a scene about artificial life confronting its own inception, but it could equally be about us, confronting our own makeup, an attempt to make sense of our own identity.
Critics of Blade Runner often dismiss the film on the grounds of its slight storyline or sparse action but I would argue that this is a movie designed to be entirely entombed and absorbed in. Younger viewers will be amazed at how much contemporary science fiction has borrowed from its look and feel, and indeed much of its thematic content. The revelation in The Matrix that Neo is The One, though clearly aiming for loftier and grander existentialist implications, always registers as an overreaching and hollow attempt to one-up sci-fi’s cerebral core. Here, we get a final confrontation between Deckard and Batty, the renegade Replicant group’s charismatic leader, high on the rooftop of LA’s famous Bradbury Building. Deckard is broken and beaten, the taught, muscular Batty approaching following a relentless chase up through the lower floors. He sits, lotus-positioned in front of the terrified, mystified Blade Runner and begins a contemplative two-line monologue about his impending demise. It’s poetic and sad and beautiful. The rain falls and Vangelis’ CS-80 gently undulates in the background. It’s a transcendental moment and provides the film with a resolution that contains rare restraint and understatement.
Ridley Scott’s latest film Prometheus, a quasi-prequel to the Alien films may or may not prove to contain the same painterly and judicious combination of inventive storytelling and detailed production design as his early forays into sci-fi. No doubt for many, this will be their first Ridley Scott film. And in many ways it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t live up to expectations, because somewhere, tucked away on a Blu Ray shelf or on a hard-drive, we’ll always have Alien, and we’ll always have Blade Runner, and on loading the movie and playing it, there’ll always be those opening Vangelis notes, priming us for goosebumps.