'Blade Runner' Analysis: No Single Vision

Harrison Ford Blade Runner
Harrison Ford in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

There is simply no scene in Blade Runner that approaches that moment in Au hasard Balthazar. Indeed, Scott doesn't even try, for Blade Runner is one of those movies whose reputation rests almost entirely upon the “criticism of intent”: a noxious reiteration of the intentional fallacy. Fans and supporters of the film simply toss around ideas of what they “like” about the film, supported or not, then cross-reference each others' speculations, while conveniently ignoring either counterevidence or lack of evidence. That approach then gets supplemented by elements such as the director's own take on what the film is about, including those found in a handful of documentaries and interviews.

For instance, in 2002 Scott told The Observer that he liked the idea of pain – a subject he claims to explore in his film – due to a sibling's prolonged death from cancer. However, despite Roy Batty's occasional winces, there is nothing in Blade Runner (in any version) that suggests that pain is a major theme. Maybe Scott intended it; maybe it's a quarter-century of wanting to do something in the film and claiming it's there, but the net fact is that Blade Runner is not an exploration of pain. Period.

Another bandied-about claim is that Blade Runner is somehow “visionary,” which is based upon the suffusion of details that fill the screen – in other words, all the techno stuff. Yet, this is rather standard fare in sci-fi films, from Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (that film's special effects director, Douglas Trumbull worked on Blade Runner), in addition to the similarly themed Logan's Run (a goofier but much more enjoyable effort), Star Wars, and Scott's own Alien. Among the aforementioned titles, only Metropolis and 2001 could be considered visionary – for their tales, not their technical wizardry.

Blade Runner by Ridley Scott

Even Blade Runner's most ardent supporters admit how much it stylistically leeches off ofMetropolis, especially in regard to its vision of a future Los Angeles. Alien, for its part, certainly laid the visual template of a dark mechanistic future that Blade Runner exploits and that has led to what is known as cyber-punk. In short, Blade Runner is not visionary in any sense of the word; instead, it's a highly derivative effort – the very antithesis of visionary.

Similarly, Scott is by no means a visionary director. Years ago, he would have been called a studio craftsman because there is never a moment or passage in his work where one immediately knows that it is from a Ridley Scott film. Great, good, or bad, all of Scott's films are technically fine, but leave no indelible imprint à la Stanley Kubrick, Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, or Akira Kurosawa.

The DVD version of “The Final Cut” comes on two discs. The second disc offers only a three-hour-plus documentary, Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. While Dangerous Days has some interesting information, its length is off-putting, especially considering the rather wan film it explores so deeply. The first disc contains the film, and it is certainly a visual stunner – Jordan Cronenweth's cinematography is remarkable, though, again, there is no “signature” visual moment that raises Blade Runner above dozens of other sci-fi movies. On the downside, Vangelis' score, like all his film music, is overwrought and pretentious.

The DVD also has some minor bonus features and a trailer, but the meat of this disc is found in its three audio commentaries – even though none is particularly stellar. The best is probably Scott's, despite a number of self-congratulatory remarks and the director's tendency to roam off the mark. He provides some useful background information, but ultimately he seems to be stuck too deeply in self-backpatting to be of any real service. In other words, the commentary is more self-centered than film-centered.

Another commentary is provided by the visual-effects guys. This one is simply dull, filled with technospeak and minor recollections. Its only bright spot is the claim that the tower explosions in the opening scenes were leftover shots from Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (made over a decade earlier) that had been sitting around in a vault and were superimposed on the model set of the futuristic city.

The third commentary features the film's producer, Michael Deeley, and its screenwriters, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, among others. Fancher and Peoples spend much of the commentary trying to be smart asses, mouthing a poor man's Abbott and Costello routine about who wrote what. The first time that occurs, it's mildly amusing; pretty soon it becomes a bore, in addition to being both boorish and pointless.

Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner
Daryl Hannah in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner

Producer Michael Deeley, however, makes the most insightful comment on all three of the commentaries when he affirms that the original, with the voice-over, is the best version. He says that he often argues with the film's diehard fans as they point to later versions as proof that the voice-over was superfluous. Deeley's response is that the later cuts work only because the fans originally saw the film with the voice-over and have carried over information gotten that way into subsequent versions.

To the first-time viewer, though, the later versions leave too many plot holes and is too slow moving to make one “go with the flow” while ignoring the logical inconsistencies made more understandable by the voice-over. Deeley is correct, but other than that point he has little of substance to contribute. Indeed, all the commentaries suffer from a penchant for dealing less with the actual film and more with what they each intended the film to be, a flaw recapitulated from the intervening years of critical miscriticism.

Summing up, Blade Runner is a barely watchable film, mainly on the strength of its technical achievements. Nowhere is it the masterpiece its fans claim it to be. Like its source novel, Blade Runner has a few good ideas, lots of bad ones, a thin plot, trite and leaden dialogue, and poor characterizations made all the worse by mediocre-to-bad acting, from the always overrated Harrison Ford and the abysmal Sean Young to the over-the-top Rutger Hauer (aptly demonstrated by his silly soliloquy), the lifeless Daryl Hannah (whose portrayal – along with Hauer's – does nothing to engender sympathy for the Replicants), and the quirk-infested Edward James Olmos.

Add in the chemistry-less love story between Ford and Young, the muddled plot (especially in the later versions), and the far-too-long sequences designed to simply show off the visuals and inner workings of Tyrell's corporation, and Blade Runner turns out to be a classic triumph of “style over substance.” Even that cliché grates, despite its aptness. (Granted, it would not surprise me if claimants of the “Deckard as Replicant” posit point to the pithy love story as proof that both characters are non-human, but Occam's Razor points instead to the simpler interpretation that it's just bad acting and writing.)

Ultimately, Blade Runner falls far short of its claimed greatness simply because it is never sure of what it wants to be – and that's another strike against its “visionary” claims. It has too many feet on too many boats that diverge: is it sci-fi, is it existential, is it film noir, is it a character study? Blade Runner has elements of all these and more, but not enough of any of them to make it work as a whole. In fact, the film's chief failing on all scores is that Ridley Scott had no vision for the project, grafting elements from Alien and many of the other films mentioned in this essay, trying to take what worked from each, thus ending up with a work that is a thematic mess – and a dull one, at that.

Sure, Blade Runner has plenty of visions, but no single vision; in its own myopia, Blade Runner's dystopia founders. I doubt that any further recuts can cure that ill.

© Dan Schneider

BLADE RUNNER (1982). Dir.: Ridley Scott. Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Brion James. Scr.: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples; from Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide. A version of this Blade Runner review was initially posted in January 2009.

2 Academy Award Nominations

Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Lawrence G. Paull, David L. Snyder, Linda DeScenna

Best Effects, Visual Effects: Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich, David Dryer

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5 Comments to 'Blade Runner' Analysis: No Single Vision

  1. Patrik

    “there is no “signature” visual moment that raises Blade Runner above dozens of other sci-fi movies.”

    Give me strength.. Are you sure you watched past the opening titles? The first scene in the film looks absolutely incredible. That is just one of the many moments in the film that are better than what most, if not all, other sci-fi movies offer up. Zhora's death scene, when she's lying on the broken glass that reflects the neon signs and what not, is another.

    “On the downside, Vangelis' score, like all his film music, is overwrought and pretentious.”

    Right.. Excellent trolling though, I'll give you that.

  2. David L. Snyder

    “Even Blade Runner's most ardent supporters admit how much it stylistically leeches off of Metropolis, especially in regard to its vision of a future Los Angeles. Alien, for its part, certainly laid the visual template of a dark mechanistic future that Blade Runner exploits and that has led to what is known as cyber-punk. In short, Blade Runner is not visionary in any sense of the word; instead, it's a highly derivative effort — the very antithesis of visionary”? You sir, are in possession of what we in the Art Department refer to as a 'deaf eye'. As stunning as “Metropolis” is, it was a quaint antique in our view. You are incorrect on so many levels outside the realm of design that I am exhausted merely reading your diatribe. If this your honest, fair evaluation of a motion picture, I recommend that you seek out an alternative endeavor. Don't give up your day job Danny Boy. David L. Snyder, Art Director, “Blade Runner”

  3. Autumn Washington

    How tall is Daryl Hannah anyway?”-;

  4. John Osterman

    Thank you for this post. I think the movie is terrible and everyone tells me I didn't get it, or I am too stupid to get it. It was horrible. The acting, the plot, the interaction. It was all style,

  5. jules rosen

    but still a great frigging movie that certainly entertained me and DID have a vision of the future portrayed well.

    You may not like the future but for sure its gonna happen …. like death and taxes …