"[Ridley] Scott is a decorator, a borrower, and a synthesist; like a great machine he contains all striking images and can deliver and fuse them, so long as the product is impersonal."
That’s from David Thomson’s dismissive entry on the master in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, and this bullshit attitude reminds us why we’re only now getting a fully finished, restored and fixed version of Blade Runner released to theaters (well, two great big theaters in two great big cities, but we’ll attend to that foolishness shortly). Scott’s great misfortune was to enter the medium of filmmaking as a success; before debuting The Duellists at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival (where he was awarded the Best First Film prize), Scott had already established himself as one of the world’s top commercial directors. For many film critics, particularly the lingering remnants of the old school, this was scandal; any man too attuned to the commerce end of commercial filmmaking must be a villain. These were the same charges leveled at Scott’s contemporary, Alan Parker, but at least the director of Midnight Express and Fame made movies intellectually dishonest enough to invite such indignation. Scott was different. Photogenic fulmination wasn’t his thing; he was after nothing so simple and, yet, difficult as immersion.
Like all great filmmakers, Ridley Scott has evolved throughout his career, but it’s interesting to note that, as he’s grown older, his instinct has been to move nearer to audience expectations. The silly, but vastly entertaining Black Rain was the beginning of this (Someone to Watch Over Me may have been the first attempt, but it failed to connect), and it’s an appropriate farewell to his old aesthetic given the surface similarities of 1989 Tokyo to 2019 Los Angeles. But Black Rain, for all its visual splendor, was primarily concerned with giving the audience what it knew too well by that point: a fish-out-of-water buddy cop flick. It was a film that sought to connect ephemerally via Hollywood shorthand rather than risk commercial failure by connecting too deeply with too few. It wasn’t the end of Scott as a master filmmaker, but the loss was still palpable; there went one of our last creator of worlds.
As Oliver Stone noted several weeks ago in an interview for the "Look, Fellas, It’s as Good as It’s Ever Gonna Get!" cut of Alexander, the creating of worlds is cost-prohibitive anymore; given the subject matter and lack of a bankable star, Lawrence of Arabia wouldn’t earn a greenlight today until David Lean agreed to shoot the film in under ninety days (in countries with generous tax rebates), and with a heavy reliance on farmed-out, second-rate CG, thereby condemning the epic to a kind of boilerplate sameness. (And once conditioned to the benefits of digital intermediate, Lean would probably tweak the life out of Sherif Ali’s desert mirage entrance.) Factor in the reluctance of scenarists to conceive of stories that break with the carefully calibrated, tightly structured way of doing things (these are the dullards who stomp around bellowing "Story is king!"), and it’s a miracle when a movie like The Assassination of Jesse James ambles at its own goddamn gait out of a major studio.
The Ridley Scott of 1982 would’ve adored such a film. That’s probably why the Ridley Scott of 2007 produced it.
The fullness of one’s immersion in these richly imagined worlds isn’t contingent on an excessive run time, and it’s fascinating to consider that in its director-approved, "Final Cut" form, Blade Runner clocks in at 117 minutes, same as the unofficial ’92 Director’s Cut, same as the International Cut, and very close to the studio-mangled 1982 Theatrical Cut. This is because Scott, for the most part, felt Blade Runner even if he did not completely comprehend its narrative (and the "Is Deckard a Replicant?" debate has waged for far too long to believe that this was ever definitively settled in pre-production – at least, not collectively by Scott and the writers, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples). Though partially robed in the narrative tropes of a detective yarn, Blade Runner is all theme and mood where it counts; and while the plot gaps are more like chasms (e.g. why is a solitary investigator attempting to trick Leon into giving himself away as a replicant when he’s already in the criminal database?), the pursuit of Roy Batty is more fascinating on a metaphorical level.
And this is why Blade Runner is not as cold or remote as its critics have always maintained; the idea of Batty yearning for "more life" because he cannot bear to part with the exhilarating beauty of existence, having "seen things you people wouldn’t believe"… this is the huge, wounded heart of Scott’s film. And its elusiveness – the way it’s buried under the dystopian grimness of 2019 Los Angeles, where rain and night and misery are seemingly forever – makes Batty’s final, Christlike gesture (a nail through the hand is rarely just a nail through the hand) that much more devastating. It’s one of the great perception shifts in all of cinema: Batty’s quest is suddenly, tragically noble, while Deckard’s search-and-destroy gig has plummeted from gumshoe-sleazy to outright villainy.
Putting aside the possibility that Deckard is a replicant (the glowing eyes and origami unicorn may answer the question for some, but it’s still reasonable to view these "clues" as symbolic of cross-being empathy), Batty’s acute appreciation of life, and his murderous fury at its finiteness (peaking with the killing of his flesh-and-blood maker), is a withering indictment of human ennui. So what better archetype to place against this life obsessed antagonist than a world-weary detective right out of Chandler? This is the conceptual genius of Blade Runner. It’s the extreme contrast that invigorates Scott’s film, not the superficial melding of two incongruous genres – and that’s what all the subsequent pretenders have gotten wrong. They enter emulating the picture’s style, and exit long before they settle on a theme.
Again, the emphasis on immersion and metaphor at the expense of story does not make for a perfect movie, nor does it alleviate the boredom that sets in during the deadly second act sag, where Deckard romances the unbeknownst replicant Rachel (Sean Young). But the pacing on Scott’s "Final Cut" comes very close to making this scene bearable, which is some kind of triumph. It’d be oxymoronic and wrong to declare Blade Runner "briskly meditative", but this version of the film comes close to inspiring such cognitive dissonance.
Still, if a little boredom is the price one has to pay for getting lost in the most fully realized sci-fi environment since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, then bring on the scattered yawns. From the low rumbling audio that rattles the viewer throughout the opening credits to the sight of spinners alighting on the tops of decrepit skyscrapers to the art design orgy that is Tyrell’s office (the entirety of Deckard’s Act One visit to Tyrell Corporation is a cinematographical gift from the genius that was Jordan Cronenweth), Blade Runner is immersion filmmaking of the first order. It is without equal. And it is a masterpiece of its kind.
And, due to fiscal timidity at Warner Brothers, it is currently without a nationwide theatrical rollout. This isn’t to suggest that the studio should go with a 1,000-plus screen rerelease ala The Exorcist back in 2000. It’s just that it’s downright evil to deprive movie buffs outside of New York City and Los Angeles of the opportunity to see Blade Runner in its ideal format. It’s a big screen movie; it’s the kind of film that, like Lawrence of Arabia, only yields its ineffable pleasures in a large, darkened room sans domestic accoutrements. Immersion doesn’t happen in one’s living room, not without a lot of effort. And while it’s true that immersion doesn’t happen much in theaters anymore, it will with Blade Runner. This is one for the faithful, a chance to see an endangered bird in captivity. It should not be savored alone.