AFI Top 100 Discussion: Blade Runner

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AFI Top 100 Discussion is a series of posts dedicated to dialogues concerning the best of American Cinema as designated by the American Film Institute. Jon Harrison of A Cinematic Odyssey and I have been picking our way through the list since 2014, having covered five films so far. Today we are discussing the 1982 Sci-fi classic: Blade Runner.

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Our sporadic wanderings through AFI’s Top 100 list continue with today’s discussion of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, Blade Runner. For those following along at home, Jon and I will be examining the theatrical cut (aka the one that’s available to stream on Netflix currently). The film takes place in a dystopian future LA, where Blade Runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) is tasked with hunting down a group of rebellious, near-human androids known as Replicants. Join us as we discuss the nature of humanity, film noir and sci-fi conventions, overexposed diffuse blue light, and how annoying voice overs can be. 

Hunter: So I actually have seen Blade Runner before, but it was a long time ago and I definitely didn’t understand the movie. I knew what it thought it was getting at, but honestly I didn’t really like the film. Based on its classic status, I have long wanted to revisit it so I’m glad you picked it for this! This time around, I definitely did appreciate it more than I did the first time, but I still found it a bit empty. Before I get to that though, I want to talk about what I did definitely like, the aesthetic of the film and the creation of this “sci-fi noir” environment. This really is the best part of the film if you ask me, and I was just wondering how you responded to that?

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Jon: I feel the exact same way as you. I was highly disappointed in the film on my first watch a while back but glad we were able to revisit it. The whole “sci-fi noir” environment is absolutely genius for them in 1982 to create such an elaborate design of a massive city like LA taking place in 2019. The streets were overcrowded and filled with various cultures; furthermore it had a lot of grittiness to it’s look which complemented the film. It was great to see this, because most films paint the picture of LA from the high class perspective. Though you can get through this film on looks alone, were you able to find anything within the story compelling?

Hunter: I really do think the look and atmosphere of the film is its triumph, though its themes of what differentiates humans and androids are very important and resonant, I feel as if the filmmakers really didn’t get into it that much. I really don’t know why, because most people point this film out as a shining example of sci-fi for that reason. To me though, it’s all form and not much content for some reason. I find myself marveling at the lighting and production design and not even paying attention to what is going on! So of course that holds back the film for me, because there’s not as much enjoyment to be gotten out of stylistic choices when you don’t know how they relate to the story…. But I’m sure I’m missing something with the reputation that this film has. I should read an essay about it or something ha ha  

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Jon: The talk I hear most about the film is whether or not Deckard is a Replicant as well. Which ties back to the filmmakers not really telling us what differentiates humans and androids. The 4 Androids that Deckard had to go up against where the Nexus 6, so it makes me wonder if Deckard is a Replicant, is he a version prior to that? Is the whole city full of them? They mention a couple times of the animals aren’t real, because real animals are far too expensive. Also Deckard essentially gets manhandled throughout the entire film which makes me think he’s an average joe with a good shot. Asides from that I also feel like I’m missing out on something haha, it looks like we are coming to an agreement for the second time ever!

Hunter: I feel like we’re both going to be rewatching this film for a long time wondering how people are relating to it! But yeah, SPOILER ALERT I definitely read somewhere awhile back how Ridley Scott “definitively” said that Deckard is indeed a replicant (though I guess Ford believes he isn’t). I found that this time around watching the film it doesn’t change the experience that much, though perhaps that’s only because I don’t remember much of watching it the first time. I think it definitely illuminates the ending, as Rachel (who knows she’s a replicant) and Deckard (thinks he’s a human) run off together. Watching the film he feels like a replicant, we never really see him have any relatives or friends, he seems to have photos similar to Rachel, and the voice over makes him sound very robotic even if he doesn’t when he’s speaking normally. I wonder if the sequel will resolve these questions… but of course I’m mostly excited to see how Deakins shoots it!

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Jon: Seriously though, however I felt like this about Alien, but that has changed. That’s true about the photos, I must say the attention to detail in this film struck me the second time around, noticing all his photos in comparison to Rachel’s, and that whole scene where he analyzes the photos. Something that did bother me a lot in this cut was the narration. I already detest narration in other films as well, but here it was completely unnecessary. I felt it detracted from the viewer being able to interpret things. When you compare it to the final cut, these moments weren’t there, and it allowed the viewer to just absorb the whole environment and wonder who this Blade Runner really is. SPOILER ALERT The most powerful moment of this for me is when Deckard is watching Roy lay there dead, and in the final cut he just observes his body before having his concentration being broken by Gaff. However in this theatrical cut, Deckard explains his emotions, the ending of the film had a similar problem which was resolved in the final cut, so at least Scott got that right. Oh, and yes Deakins will have a field day with Villeneuve on Blade Runner 2, I’m extremely excited for that despite the flaws of this film.

Hunter: I’m glad we get to talk about the voice over! I know I should hate it, and I kinda hated in the film mostly because of Ford’s delivery (though I do think it interestingly contributes to the Deckard is a replicant theory) but also because it was very obvious most of the time. But on some level I really liked it because I feel like it’s a throwback to other cheesy noir narations, like in Sunset Boulevard for example. I agree that for the most part it doesn’t really work in the film at all.

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Jon: Yes, now you have me wondering if that was the intended purpose but nevertheless the noir narration aspect was pretty cool. I haven’t seen Sunset Boulevard…yet, but Double Indemnity fersure! I enjoyed the film’s score a lot. It was a futuristic jazzy-noir sound that was heavily complemented by the overall look of the film. It was very dreamy & romantic at times due to the gorgeous cinematography by Cronenweth. I know that you are studying cinematography, was there anything impressive in here, or something that struck your attention?

Hunter: The narration is a common noir trope, Sunset Boulevard was just the first example of it that came to mind but Double Indemnity is another great example.  

As previously stated, I did really enjoy the look of the film. Something interesting to pay attention to on (yet another) rewatch would be how they use the orange and blue light. That scene early on with the empathy tests, where its first discussed that Rachel is actually a replicant, is very orange because of the sun, but most scenes are very cold and lit with blue light. I remember thinking that I should pay attention how the different colors are used in the film! Otherwise, it’s very hard for me to look at outside of creating that future noir look. Some shots just take your breath away though, with that overexposed diffused light coming into the frame in interesting ways. Sorry I can’t be more specific lol  

Jon: No, no, that was a brilliant response, I didn’t even begin to think about how that scene was strikingly different from all the other scenes, albeit it was “sun lit”. Yeah I need to read more up on the overexposed diffused lighting, but that’s interesting. Before we wrap things up, what did you think about the climax of the film? For me, it was highly lackluster, yeah a game of cat and mouse, but it had nothing to really build off of, I guess that relates back to the story issues.

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Hunter: I mean, I does get you closer to what the film is trying to say, I think, which is how the androids can feel pain and experience life similar to humans (or at least believe they can). I thought it was filmed very poetically and beautifully acted by Rutger Hauer, but did it affect me on a deep emotional level? Not really. Though I still do love the quote I included at the bottom, which happens after that scene.

So as per tradition, it’s time to evaluate Blade Runner’s position on this list. AFI ranked it at 97, right between Do the Right Thing and Yankee Doodle Dandy (also seems like a weird inclusion on this list but that’s a discussion for another day). I’m of two minds about this ranking. I do like the film, I just don’t connect to it emotionally like I would hope to with a great film, but the contribution of the future noir aesthetic is reason enough for it to be where it is. Though I enjoy Ben-Hur (the final movie on the list) a lot more!

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Jon: Based on the fact this is a list out of 100, I believe 97 is a great spot for it due to its contribution, but if I was with the group when they made this list my train of thought would be, “Blade Runner has to be on this list but there are so many other great films so let’s just stick it at the end” I don’t know what Yankee Doodle Dandy is but Blade Runner sounds better, but it’s definitely not better than Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, so 97 is justified for me.

Hunter: Sort of off topic, but I saw Yankee Doodle Dandy (musical with James Cagney from 1942) a long time ago and didn’t really get into it that much either. But for the second time in a row, we basically agree on one of the AFI’s Top 100 films. Please, point out what we’re missing on this one.

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“It’s too bad she won’t live… but then again, who does?”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert review
The New York Times review

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2 responses to “AFI Top 100 Discussion: Blade Runner

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