From the opening moments of the film, Blade Runner is a captivating experience. The darkness of night pierced by flames jutting out from the tops of buildings with fields of glowing lights from skyscrapers. The camera slowly moves towards a pyramid structure, another wonder of the world, but this wonder is dark, shards of light piercing out from its dark, industrial core. The shot that follows it is an eye which reflects a rolling flame.
That opening moment sets the mood and tempo of the rest of the film. Vangelis’ haunting synth soundtrack, the slow, lingering shots and the dense, sprawling set designs serve to make every last shot, every single scene, as intriguing as the last. There’s not a dull moment in the film’s run-time, even the slowest moments are peppered with something interesting to see and hear. The sensory landscape of the film is bizarre, and,macabre.
There are shots of the city that are simply pans across, not focusing on any particular act or action that furthers the plot. A conversation will end with a pan to cyclist driving through the streets. This wandering camera allows the film to breathe in the dense atmosphere of the film, creating a sense of place and mood that is indelibly Blade Runner.
And that aesthetic allure goes a long way to making up for the film’s shortcomings. The dialogue ranges from poetic to awkward to terrible. Some character actions and behaviors are nonsensical. Almost every actor who isn’t Harrison Ford or Sean Young comes across as hammy. This film is rough around the edges, but those edges are part of the charm.
In a lot of ways, Blade Runner is b-movie grade sci-fi elevated to arthouse film quality. The lingering shots and Jordan Cronenweth’s gorgeous cinematography combined with Lawrence G. Paull’s sublime production design create a visual feast in what could have easily been a grimy, grungy world with little beauty to be found. Likewise, those nonsensical motivations and actions begin to make more sense when put into the framework of arthouse cinema, a world where the psychology of the characters are often unknowable and unexplained.
And by blending sci-fi and arthouse sensibilities, one gets a film that explores all kinds of deep, complex ideas in interesting ways. The big question of the film is: what does it mean to be human? The film explores the ideas of memory, emotions and the soul. Some of these are dealt with in more symbolic ways than the spoken world, further enhancing the visual spectacle of the film.
As arthouse films are wont to do, the film leaves the audience with more questions than answers. The often discussed core mystery of whether or not Deckard is a replicant is almost an afterthought given it only comprises two scenes of the film. It’s a small slice of ambiguity in a film brimming with deep musings and ponderings.
Not everything in Blade Runner excels, but those flaws and rough edges are part of the charm. It’s pulp as high-art and it succeeds superbly in that regard. Few films can compare in visual splendor or cinematic craft. A single shot is unmistakable. And with the deep-philosophical questions behind it, there’s just as much to think about as there is to see.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing