Cinema: The Pleasures of Texture

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Directed by Ridley Scott

Screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples

Is atmosphere smothering the story lines of smart new science-fantasy movies? Is texture overwhelming the text? On the evidence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner—and his previous thriller, the 1979 Alien—it would seem so. Says David Dryer, who helped supervise the special photographic effects of Blade Runner: “The environment in the film is almost a protagonist.” He and other talented craftsmen are lavishing their imaginations on graphic design—on high-tech spaceships and déja vu futurism—and allowing the characters to wander through a labyrinthine narrative like lost dwarfs. Moviegoers seeking the smooth propulsion of story line look at these films and ask, “What’s going on here?” Directors and effects specialists, plumbing the resources of a technology that can show what has never been seen before, answer: “The here is what’s going on. The setting, the surroundings, the texture.”

In Blade Runner, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the here is quite enough: a vision of dark, cramped, urban squalor. This is Los Angeles in the year 2019, when most of the earth’s inhabitants have colonized other planets, and only a polyglot refuse heap of humanity remains. Los Angeles is a Japanized nighttown of sleaze and silicon, fetid steam and perpetual rain. This baroque Tomorrowland juggles images from a dozen yesterdays: walk out of the rain and into a 1940s world of overhead fan blades and women in shoulder-pad jackets moving to the cadence of a keening alto sax. The filthy streets are clogged with Third World losers and carnivores, while 10 ft. above them the police cars hover, monitoring the future as it molders into chaos.

Some people don’t belong in this decaying cityscape. One is Deckard (Harrison Ford), a burntout, Bogie-style detective; the others are “replicants,” robots of advanced design who have infiltrated the city to find their creator and prolong their short, violent lives beyond the allotted four-year span. Deckard, brought back into service to kill the quartet of replicants, finds it no easy job—for they are powerful and cunning, and he is tired beyond caring. Moreover, Deckard’s emotions have been short-circuited from a lifetime of dirty police work, whereas the emotions of the replicant leader Batty (Rutger Hauer) are flowering just as his “termination date” nears. And so the twin pursuits begin. Deckard, a man from the past, races against time to track down his quarry; Batty, the man of the future, races for as much time as genetic engineering and his appetite for life will grant him.

Blade Runner, like its setting, is a beautiful, deadly organism that devours life; and Ford, the cockily engaging Star Warrior of Raiders of the Lost Ark, allows his heroic stature to shrivel inside it. In comparison, Hauer’s silver-haired superman is more human than human, and finally more complex than Ford’s victimized flatfoot. Because of this imbalance of star roles, and because this drastically recut movie has a plot that proceeds by fits and stops, Blade Runner is likely to disappoint moviegoers hoping for sleek thrills and derring-do. But as a display terminal for the wizardry of Designers Lawrence G. Paull, Douglas Trumbull and Syd Mead, the movie delivers. The pleasures of texture have rarely been so savory.

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