Skin Jobs

I turn fifty on the tenth of this month (accelerated decrepitude), which makes me the perfect age to have enjoyed BLADE RUNNER when it was brand new — it played at the Edinburgh Film Festival, which sounds like quite a coup now, but of course the movie went on to perform poorly on first release. It’s nice to hear the sequel is getting lots of favourable attention, and I think we shall go see it. So to limber up, we revisited the original — actually, the first time we’d watched Ridley Scott’s 2007 Final Cut.

“Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER is a cracker,” said the first line of The Scotsman’s review, as I recall.

I also remember a schoolfriend continually saying he was excited to see that new film, “RUNNER-THE-BLADE.”

And I remember when ITV showed the film the first time there was a warning that it was hard to understand nd you had to pay attention. The newspaper listing siad you needed to watch it from the beginning. The next day I heard two fellow students discussing it (I was at college by then): “How was it?” “I missed the first half, I couldn’t really understand it.” And this was the version with the over-explanatory VO.

H.F. giving it plenty of ‘tude. Not my fave close-up of him. But hands up if you enjoyed his Paul Linde impression when he visits Joanna Cassidy’s dressing room. Do you like it better than his Scotsman in LAST CRUSADE?

Part of what’s good about BR, arguably, asides from the sheen, is the muddled storytelling, which feels very seventies. You could make the dialogue hard to hear, like in THE FRENCH CONNECTION or HEAVEN’S GATE, and/or you could bury the essential plot info and make crucial character points impossible to visualise. Like, the replicants aren’t robots, they’re biological, but nobody comes right out and says that. Science fiction fans understand from the talk about genetic engineering that this is what’s going on, but non-nerds may be puzzled that the androids bleed.

But I want to talk a little about other, less deliberate and less reasonable muddle in BLADE RUNNER’s exposition. If you don’t like the film you’ll agree these are problematic. If you do like the film, you’ll hopefully find it striking that a film can be compelling even with such nonsensical elements in its storytelling.

The pencil-point next to the eyeball is a smart way to make the audience feel obscurely uncomfortable.

In the opening scene, we see a blade runner administering the Voight-Kampff test to Leon, a fugitive replicant. Replicants are apparently so identical to humans, despite being super-powered and having a four year lifespan, that the only way to spot one is by testing their emotional responses. This is exactly like the fabled psychopath test, with aspects of the polygraph thrown in for colour. Original author Philip K. Dick’s idea is that androids would be like psychopaths, emotionally defective copies of human beings. In came out of his researches into the Nazis for The Man in the High Castle. He claimed to have read a letter from a concentration camp guard, complaining to his wife, “We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” Dick said, “There is something wrong with the mind that wrote that sentence.” Dick was thrilled when he saw the film pre-release, particularly by Rutger Hauer as replicant leader Roy Batty (cool that they have human names). Hauer looked a lot like a Nazi superman.

But why is it necessary to give Leon the Jon Voight Test? Later, police chief M. Emmet Walsh shows Harrison Ford photos of the replicants. They know he’s a replicant! Instead of testing his pupillary dilation, shouldn’t they just show him his photo and say, “Isn’t this you?” Or else just shoot him. It’s weirdly bureaucratic — which brings us back to the Nazis again — the movie actually makes the state and humans more Nazi-like, and there were plans to show replicant corpse-mountains at one point…

Dodgy vertical hold on shot of Rutger spinning on a swivel chair.

When Walsh shows the slides (looks like they’re on a big TV screen, but there’s a projector beam), he also explains to Ford, his top former blade runner, exactly what a blade runner does and what replicants are, and how they don’t have emotions… but Ford will later be seen administering the Jon Voight Test to Sean Young (he proves she’s not Jon Voight) so he must already know this. Theory: in films where audiences struggle to follow the plot and comprehend the story world, sometimes the confusion is actually heightened by scenes where characters tell each other things they should already know. Or DO already know — the infamous and deadly “As you know…” formulation, which is still very common in British TV and Harvey Weinstein productions. “As you know, I’m your father…” Improbably exposition throws everyone off-balance.

A lot of the off-base exposition could have been slipped into BLADE RUNNER’s opening crawl, I think, though you again have to be careful when feeding an audience info they haven’t any reason to be curious for yet. And it really helps when you swiftly follow the text info with visuals illustrating the point. STAR WARS does this. BLADE RUNNER doesn’t mention emotional tests, and talks sympathetically about the killing/retirement of replicants, whereas in the next scene its a blade runner who gets shot. (Also, strangely, the crawl is written in the past tense, unlike STAR WARS. Maybe the crawl-writer is looking back from 2049?) But of course one of the intriguing things about that first scene with Leon is that we don’t really understand what this test is. It’s a great hook.

Non-sci-fi types (muggles, mundanes, the unnerded) often have trouble with science fiction because they overthink it. They hear the jargon and believe they’re supposed to understand what it means, which is rarely true or important. They should really just ask who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. In BLADE RUNNER, for the purposes of telling this story, we are to accept Ford as the hero, even though analysing the ramifications of the story world points towards a reading where Batty is a bit of a Spartacus figure and the blade runner is a sort of government hitman empowered to kill people for racial reasons. Sort of like a Florida policeman.


In the most recent editions of the film, the who-does-what-to-whom is very clear, but the first release version wasn’t even clear about how many replicants there were supposed to be on the loose. The excellent making-of book documents all this production muddle. You had two writers who didn’t meet until the premiere, where each thought the other was responsible for the awful VO. You had a director who hadn’t read the book: “I couldn’t finish it. It’s very densely written.” It’s 224 pages and was probably written in a week. One of the screenwriters didn’t get a chance to read it because he was bunged a copy of the script and ordered to start at once. He was probably correct to assume that any elements of the novel that hadn’t been included were left out because the producers didn’t want them.

Neither of the talented screenwriters felt he was terribly good at writing clues — a fairly important element in most detective stories. In the finished BLADE RUNNER, Ford’s stand-in finds a snake scale in Leon’s bathtub, in a scene shot back in the UK after the main shoot had finished. Then he does a scan of a photo found in the flat, eventually printing out a Polaroid (!) of Joanna Cassidy as Zora, another replicant. It isn’t clear in the super-grainy snap, but I think it’s her facial tattoo of a snake that causes him to realise that what he’s found is a snake scale. But then he goes to the market and asks if it’s a fish scale. So, if he doesn’t know what it is, what was the purpose the elaborate photo analysis? What information is gained?

Wait, i think I have it. I guess he finds Zora in the bath, thus associating her potentially with the scale, so the scale might lead to her. Whereas if the scale was Leon’s, it wouldn’t have been a useful clue.

But you see, that’s me putting this all together thirty-five years after seeing the movie. Though admittedly I haven’t spent all of the intervening time trying to figure this out.

Still, I’m pleased with my Eureka! moment in Leon’s bathtub.

14 Responses to “Skin Jobs”

  1. “Blade Runner” is the best film about downtown L.A. since Losey’s “M”

  2. And using a number of the same key locations, yes.

    I love that the Bradbury Building came to its architect in a dream, like Frankenstein and Dracula and Jekyll & Hyde.

  3. Ben Slater Says:

    Regarding the ‘briefing’ scene with M. Emmet Walsh, there’s a lot of ADR in there from Walsh, obviously added later to make certain things “clearer” about the backstory of the Replicants. But arguably the exposition is justified if we accept that the Nexus 6s are a huge leap forward for Replicant technology. Their new features need to be explained to Deckard. After all, we never do see any Nexus 5s or even earlier models…

  4. herman the german Says:

    Identical to humans, despite being super-powered and having a four year lifespan, that the only way to spot one is by testing their emotional responses.
    – Replicants are exceptional, but not super powered.

    But why is it necessary to give Leon the Jon Voight Test?
    – We do not know how much time passes before the photos are available.

    What information is gained?
    Serial number tells Deckard who manufactured the animal, thus he can trace the purchase.

  5. 50? You mere child! On October 10th (1964) I saw The Rolling Stones (for the third time) at the Southend Odeon, which is why I remember the date. You were as yet but a twinkle in your parents’ eyes. But happy birthday for the 10th!

  6. Good answers. But!
    – Roy can punch through walls (with his head, yet), and (in the original cut anyway) seems to cave in Tyrrel’s skull with his bare hands. (You can’t instantly kill someone just by thumbing their eyes, unpleasant though that is. The Three Stooges proved this by repeated self-experimentation.) Also, both women can easily beat up Deckard.
    – Sure, I don’t know how long it takes to fax a photo from an offworld colony, but it’s the future (just) so I find it hard to believe the answer is weeks.
    – The snake scale, when studied by a woman at some kind of market, gives Deckard the serial number. But his study of the photograph doesn’t tell him that. I did *eventually* figure out that he was able to relate the scale to Zora’s face-snake, and thus he decided that the scale might lead to her. But it took quite a bit of puzzling to get that far.

  7. Thanks, Godfrey. I realise I’m not THAT old. Fifty is the new forty-nine.

    Watching Sunset Blvd with students who were born when Titanic came out was a nice way to rub it in.

  8. And 70 is the new 30

  9. Travelling through Australia in the mid 80s I caught a showing of Blade Runner on TV. After excitedly telling everyone about the visual majesty of the opening sequence what appeared, just as the music swelled and the flares burned, were that day’s winning Tattslotto numbers superimposed over the top. I was speechless.

    At the other end of the scale; a few years ago the very smart Australian comedian Shaun Micalleff, who fills his work with BR references, in his show Newstopia replaced the subtitles of an interrogation sequence in a Scandinavian crime show with the dialogue from that there Jon Voight test. It was a joy.

    Aren’t we lucky to be the age we are, David with the culture and history we’ve absorbed and witnessed? We’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe….

  10. I’d probably feel just us lucky — while also feeling obscurely that I’d missed out — if born in any other era. But this one has certainly offered some good stuff.

  11. “If you do like the film, you’ll hopefully find it striking that a film can be compelling even with such nonsensical elements in its storytelling” – Isn’t that also a great descriptor of noir and Italian horror as well? :P

    I do think the film works as well it does because it’s simultaneously more tactile and dream-like than most science fiction is – so basically the narrative inconsistencies and flaws don’t derail it as much as they would in a more “rigorous” science fiction film. So the noir factor overwhelms the sci-fi to the film’s advantage.

    Of course, the visuals and Rutger Hauer’s performance help too

    Thanks for the post!

  12. “Tactile” is a very useful word here. For all Scott’s impressionistic effects of light and smoke and water, there’s a strong sense of skin and crumbling/damp surfaces, which may explain why things like the finger-snapping are so very, very unpleasant.

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