An Appreciation – Blade Runner
An Introduction to Dreaming About Sheep
I was 11 years old when I saw a trailer for Blade Runner. Sitting in the living of our family home, watching something on the now defunct Seattle TV station, KSTW channel 11, when the trailer came on during commercials, advertising its broadcast showing for later that night. I remember the trailer was brief, maybe 30 seconds long. But that was enough. A futuristic city with flying cars, pale faced weirdos with doves in their hands, Han Solo firing a hand cannon in the rain with a trench coat on. It was an exciting and terrifying 30 seconds. I had no idea what I’d just seen and no idea why that partially scared me.
My immediate response was to ask my parents what that was, why they never told me about it, they took me to see Empire Strikes Back for my first theatrical experience and recently showed me Raiders of the Lost Ark at home so why not this piece of Harrison Ford arcana? And most importantly, could we watch it? I was flat out surprised when they said no. The movie was weird and they didn’t like and it was also rated R, which meant I wasn’t allowed to see it. All of this of course meant that I had to see this movie even more. It was now a moral imperative that I see it.
At the time, absent of an internet for immediate knowledge, my main source of movie and television information came from TV Guide. I hadn’t yet discovered Fangoria or Psychotronic or even Entertainment Weekly, but TV Guide had a whole back section that was dedicated to movies. A complete listing of every movie that was playing on television that week accompanied by a paragraph or two description and the names of the key people involved in making it, actors, writers and directors. This was the foundation of my film education. I knew about movies and who made them long before I ever saw these things. I was starting to read that section from beginning to end each week. So I turned to my trusty weekly TV Guide to see what more I could learn about Blade Runner.
My parents had a rule regarding television and books which was basically I couldn’t watch movies above a PG rating without their approval but I could pretty much read whatever I wanted. So, when I read in TV Guide that Blade Runner was based on a novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by science fiction author Philip K. Dick, that became my new obsession. My dad took me to the library where I reserved a copy of the book and waited for the next several weeks for it to show up in the mail. When it finally did, the cover had the poster for the movie on it. I was beside myself.
The book was dark and confusing and frightening and enlightening all at the same time. And all along I thought, all of this is weird and my parents don’t like it and I love everything about it. This isn’t to say my parents rejected it. I remember having conversations with my dad about the environment and why there was a future where pretty much all animals are dead and people now had robotic pets as replacements. Then one day I saw that channel 11 was going to be showing Blade Runner again as a Saturday afternoon movie.
I honestly don’t know if my parents knew, cared or what, but I do know that I set the VCR to program record that afternoon and acquired myself a copy of a movie I’d been dying to see for what was probably close to a year or more. Expectations can do funny things to the mind and in that time, even having read the book, I had imagined this movie being the whacked out weirdest thing I would probably ever see. The actual experience was something a little (a lot) more grounded and yet far more profound than anything I could’ve at that time anticipated. Sure, it was weird in all the ways I could see my parents saying it was weird, but it was far more than that, it was subversive. It had more atmosphere than anything I think I’d seen up until then. Also, it had a hypnotic and futuristic synth score that coupled with an ambient sound design made for the perfect droning, immersive ride. But above all, or perhaps because in part service to these things, it was dangerous, and I knew it. And I thought, maybe this is what my parents thought was weird.
Visually lyrical, sparse in plot and teetering on the edge of nihilistic, Blade Runner opens with one of cinema’s now most iconic shots, a wide, establishing view of Los Angeles in the year 2019. Towers attached to refinery plants litter the landscape, spewing vapors of who knows what toxicity into the air. If you’ve ever been through Martinez, Rodeo or Richmond, California, past the giant oil refineries at night the sight will come as a familiar logical progression. The reality of that future felt perhaps even more plausible in a world where Beverly Hills High School can exist being built around its own oil refinery. A move that sparked the students to rename the oil derrick the Tower of Hope and decorate it with art, in an attempt to hide its monstrosity.
That idea alone is highly symbolic of the movie itself, a glossy veneer, sheened over a pessimistic and ugly world. At the heart of the movie is its protagonist Rick Deckard. A cold, practically emotionless detective, Deckard is more of a state sanctioned hitman, charged with finding and eliminating replicants, robots designed to look and act human, in order to be human labor. Harrison Ford plays the role in his most dispassionate, Bogart way.
Deckard makes clear from the get-go that he doesn’t want the job and that it’s only being thrust upon against his will. This is noticeably for good cause, but only in hindsight, after we’ve seen that Deckard is just as exacting with violence as those he’s hunting down. Over the course of the film, Deckard shoots a female replicant in the back, shoots another female replicant who attacks him and gets chased down after trying to kill their leader only for him to take pity on Deckard and spare him before dying himself. In fact, Deckard does no real detective work and even disappears from the movie for a good 20 minutes or more. This however plays perfectly into the film’s larger perspective of Deckard’s possible status as a replicant himself.