“Where were you in ’82?” Its a question I’ve asked so many times that I should have it on a tee-shirt. Its something of a badge of honour, having seen the original version of Blade Runner back when it first came out (reaching UK shores that September), and loving the film, and watching its fall into obscurity and eventual phoenix-like rebirth years later.
Last night I saw the Final Cut version of Blade Runner on the big screen again, taking the rare opportunity of a cinema screening of my favourite film. This close to Christmas made the whole thing seem something of an early Christmas present. I went with my old mate Andy, who was with me back on that September afternoon in far-distant 1982 when we first saw the film. “How long ago was that?” he asked me as the endless adverts screened infront of us (some things never change, although I miss the Pearl and Dean intros). I did the mental arithmetic; “Thirty-two years,” I told him. Andy looked around at some of the faces sitting amongst us in the cinema. A lot of them were not even born back then. The very cinema we first saw the film in (the old ABC in town) doesn’t exist any more. Thirty-two years. Andy and I are each of us just shy of fifty years old now. I have a wife waiting for me back home. It seemed oddly poignant then, at that moment, the two of us dwelling on the passing of time, considering how so much of Blade Runner is about death and mortality. We wondered how many of those at this screening had never seen the film on the big screen at all before this night*.
If we are getting old, then so is the film, but you’d hardly think it. Even though I love the film, its still remarkable how well it holds up even today. The sets and the beautiful cinematography really shine projected on a big screen, the sound effects loud and overpowering, the music as astonishing as ever. All that amazing set-dressing. The film influenced the ‘look’ of pop videos, television shows and other movies for decades. Back on the big screen, the visual effects hold up as well as ever- indeed, better on the big screen than at home. Its not so much just the execution, its the design of each shot, and the impact of using effects so sparingly, something modern films could learn from. Even the matte paintings. Blade Runner dates back to paintings on glass, static wide shots quite removed from the all-singing/all-dancing 3D CG mattes we see these days with sweeping virtual cameras. But stillness can be far more powerful than motion, and Blade Runner‘s mattes are quite a revelation, precisely designed and crafted.
Its a beautiful movie. Such details! Rachael’s photograph momentarily coming to life as Deckard looks at it. Its extraordinary. Who thought of doing that? Who even does stuff like that now? The blood from Deckard’s cut lip slipping into his drink. Deckard waking up in his apartment, awkwardly spilling his glass that had been on his chest. The cuts and bruises on his face. Rutger Hauer’s incredible performance; his face up on the big screen is quite mesmerising. His howls of anguish as he stands over Pris’ body. Still gives me chills.
Its such a dark movie, but such a sad movie too. The sadness threatens to overpower everything. A character has her whole life undermined when she learns she isn’t real, not even her memories or experiences. Its all a lie, a fabrication, as she is herself. Rick Deckard may not even be real. He might be just the same as Rachael. Its not an idea I subscribe to, but its there, a possibility hanging over everything, underlined by the origami unicorn that he finds at the close of the film**. The Replicants are slaves who have fled for freedom and longer lifespans as they quickly near their termination/expiry dates. JF Sebastian has a genetic problem that leaves him in a mouldering, rotting building, so alone his only company are the ‘friends’, the toys he builds. The rain never ends, its like Gods tears endlessly falling onto the blighted world.
Even now, thirty-two years on, it feels so unlike any other so-called blockbuster. It almost doesn’t function like an ordinary movie. Without 1982’s voice-over, it really does drop people into the middle of a story (if only The Final Cut had finally dropped that awful text prologue at the end of the titles!), a future rich with darkness and complexities. I’m the first to admit though, the central premise is idiotic. There is no way anyone would create superior artificial humans without an easy way to identify them. A blood test or some microscopic stamp in their eye or under their skin. Be that as it may, the four runaway Reps are supposedly on the run/in hiding but don’t even change their names, Leon trying to infiltrate the Tyrell building giving his real address and not even changing his name, his appearance or anything. Holden’s only got to look at the ID file on Leon (that we see as Bryant shows it Deckard later) to see that its him. But none of that matters. In some ways its not even important. Its the whole thing. The look, the sound of it. Its a fantasy about death and mortality and what is human, what is God. Of course it flopped at the box-office back in 1982. It isn’t the film people were expecting back then. Its something else entirely. Every Harrison Ford fan back then could have told you why***.
At films end, we walked out of the cinema into the cold December night, and it was, fittingly, raining. The rain-drenched carpark and shopping mall reflecting all the bright neon of shop-fronts, advertising signs and car headlights. We were stepping out into Blade Runner. Its here now. Back in 1982 it was still the future, but we are in it now. We may not have the flying cars or Replicants or Off-World, but we have the rain and the neon and the multi-cultural society that the film visualised. And some of us have our own mortality breathing closer over us.
Back in 1982, it was still quite sunny as Andy and I walked across town to catch our bus home. I remember us raving about the film, reliving it as we eagerly discussed it, digested it. Would I have ever dreamed that I would be walking out of another cinema, another showing of the film, some thirty-two years later? Of course not. Funny thing though. We were still raving about that film, this time as we walked through the rain, just as we had when we were teenagers so long ago. Some things never change.
*This would be the fifth time I have seen the film at the cinema, the first time seeing the Final Cut on a cinema screen. I saw the film twice in 1982, then again the following year in a double-bill with Outland (another Ladd Company venture), and then the Directors Cut version in 1994. I didn’t get chance to see the Final Cut in 2007, screenings were quite limited prior to its release on home formats.
**I still feel uncomfortable in the love-scene between Deckard and Rachael. It feels almost like rape, she isn’t even human, what’s Deckard doing with her, is it masturbatory abuse of a construct? (is he making love to a toaster? Is that even legal? Is he even human himself? Are they two Replicants fumbling at a human sex-act?). But goodness Sean Young is so beautiful in this film. Too beautiful. She isn’t real. She’s a construct. I’m surprised Sean Young even exists outside of this movie.
***What was Harrison even doing in the film anyway? He’s great in it and I think its his best film, but it seems an odd move for him. Likely he was trying to shake off Star Wars and become a ‘serious’ actor (its funny, considering some of the films he would end up in afterwards). Oddly, I was never ‘into’ that whole Harrison Ford thing anyway back then, had not even seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, so when I first saw Blade Runner I wasn’t expecting any popcorn adventure movie. It was from the director of Alien for goodness sake, I figured it would be dark and serious.