Blow (2001)

Dir. Ted Demme

Written by: David McKenna, Nick Cassavetes (from the book by Bruce Porter)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Jordi Molla, Paul Reubens, Ray Liotta


The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a glut of movies about the illicit drug trade hitting American theaters. From harrowing looks at heroin addiction like Requiem For A Dream, to thoughtful examinations of the intricacies and failures of the “war on drugs” like Traffic, to gritty police procedurals such as Narc, the subject matter of these films was as varied as their overall quality. It would seem, however, that Hollywood was addicted to drugs, and that audiences were looking for a fix as well. Looking at my shelf, I certainly tended toward enjoying these types of movies it seems. I owned all three of the aforementioned films, plus other druggy classics from the 90s like Trainspotting and New Jack City. Blow slotted in nicely alongside some of these other films, it wasn’t as gritty or real as something like Traffic, but it made for a slick, entertaining movie about the life of one of the biggest cocaine traffickers in history. I remember enjoying the film a lot as a teen, but watching it for this post for the first time in a decade, Blow mostly felt hollow and definitely doesn’t stand up with the rest of the movies mentioned here.

Blow is a biopic about the life of George Jung (Depp), America’s biggest cocaine trafficker in the 1970s and 1980s. Jung was a part of the infamous Medellin cartel, headed by Pablo Escobar, and he is almost single-handedly responsible for the cocaine craze of the 1980s. It was once estimated that some 85% of the cocaine imported in that decade was brought across the border by Jung. The film opens with Jung’s childhood in Massachusetts, where his hard-working but poor father, Fred (Liotta), teaches him the lesson that money is not important, despite the materialistic instincts of his mother. It would seem that the lesson didn’t stick, because as soon as Jung is able, he and his friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee) move to California to pursue bigger and better things, and end up becoming local celebrities selling high-grade marijuana. Jung’s ambition lands him in prison when he is busted with over 600 pounds of marijuana, and it is here that he meets Diego (Molla) who offers to introduce him to his Columbian friends after they get out of prison. Diego makes the introduction to Escobar, and the rest, as they say, is history. Jung becomes a bigger trafficker than ever, making millions in the cocaine trade, until the birth of his daughter causes him to have an epiphany and a change of heart, and he promises his wife Mertha (Cruz) that he will get out of the life. However, Jung is unable to fly straight, and his continued dalliances with cocaine end up robbing him of his life and his family, and putting him in prison for a 60-year sentence. Jung was released from prison in 2014, but the film ends with him still locked up, having never reconciled with his daughter.

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As crime films go, Blow follows a fairly standard arc. The protagonist comes up from nothing, is introduced to the criminal underworld, finds that he has a particular knack for criminality, and, ultimately, flies too close to the Sun and must pay the consequences. It borrows heavily from established classics of the genre, in particular Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The casting of Liotta as Jung’s father only serves as a constant reminder of that other, better film. It isn’t that Blow is a bad film, necessarily. Most films would pale in comparison to Goodfellas, as it’s universally recognized as one of the best crime movies ever made. It’s just that Blow lacks the depth of some of the better films in the genre. It is perfectly fine entertainment, but its over-reliance on voice over narration and montage makes the audience feel like we’re never really getting close to the real George Jung. Too often the film opts to tell, rather than show, causing it to feel light and insubstantial, like a cheap knock off. Rarely does the film deviate from the standard path set for it by the generic conventions of storytelling, and even its more inspired sequences feel predictable because it is a story that’s been told so many times before. I think a big problem might just be that George Jung is not an inherently interesting subject for a biopic. There’s no attempt to portray him as morally conflicted, or even a suggestion that the toll that his product can take on lives has ever even occurred to him. In the film, Jung seems purely interested in acquiring money and possessions, and he’s motivated by little else. He’s a largely influential and notorious figure, but he doesn’t seem to have any particular personality traits or quirks that make him a noteworthy subject.

Johnny Depp tries to breathe some life into Jung, and he does a nice job in the film of making Jung somewhat relatable and interesting. This film was released just a couple of years before the first Pirates of the Caribbean film would propel Depp into absolute mega-stardom and divert the direction of his acting career, and it’s one of the last movies where he isn’t playing “Johnny Depp playing Character X.” I’m not a huge fan of Depp as an actor, particularly not his post-Pirates work, but he does good work as Jung. The part doesn’t require him to do much dramatic heavy lifting, as it doesn’t really delve much into Jung’s psychology or emotion, but he feels genuine towards the end of the film when he is attempting to resolve the broken relationship with his daughter. By this point, Jung has lost everything, and Depp plays him with a kind of calm acceptance, rather than desperation. The film’s final scene is supposed to be the emotional climax, when it’s revealed that an aging Jung, sentenced to 60 years in prison, has never received a visit from his daughter. It’s a shame that the script didn’t provide enough opportunity for Depp to fully flesh out the character or his relationships, because this emotional payoff falls flat entirely.

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The rest of the cast performs admirably, for the most part. I like Ethan Suplee in just about everything he’s done, but he is largely used as wallpaper in the film, dropping out of the story entirely by the middle. Paul Reubens is great as a flamboyantly gay hairdresser who introduces Jung to the world of marijuana sales. The role was a big comeback for Reubens after his popularity had declined in the 1990s following his arrest for indecent exposure. He brings the same manic energy to the role of Derek Foreal that he brought to his signature role as Pee Wee, although for a much different audience. The biggest disappointment in the movie is probably Cruz, as Jung’s wife. She isn’t really on screen much, as her character isn’t introduced until over halfway through the film. She plays a bigger role towards the end of the film, but her performance is largely forgettable. She rebounds for a scene late in the film where reconciles with her former husband, but her role is otherwise too light.

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The film doubles down on its lead actor and protagonist, to the detriment of its overall success. It chooses to highlight style over substance, with multiple showy montages set to classic rock staples. These sequences are fun, and they’re probably the best parts of the movie, but, like I mentioned before, they feel preordained and derivative. Watching Jung and Diego do blow and try to find places in their apartment to stash boxes upon boxes of money while “Blinded by the Light” by ELO plays in the background is fun, but it isn’t particularly inspired, nor is “That Smell” by Lynyrd Skynyrd underlining Jung’s descent into full-blown cocaine addiction. Scorsese is probably the best when it comes to taking iconic classic rock songs and pairing them with memorable filmic images. He’s been doing it his whole career. It’s obvious that Ted Demme is borrowing heavily from that style, but in being so literal with his song choices, he misses a lot of the point of the exercise.

Ultimately, Blow is a fine movie. It is entertaining, it’s well shot, and generally well-acted, to boot. It’s just tough to want to watch Blow when there are so many other films from the same time period that deal with similar subject matter in a more interesting or more in-depth manner. Blow was only modestly successful at the box office, and it currently has an approval rating of just over 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, which feels about right. It’s certainly not a bad movie, but it isn’t very good either, or very memorable. Honestly, I think that the experience of watching Blow is pretty similar to the experience of using its namesake drug. It’s fun while you’re doing it, but whenever the effects wears off, you’re really not left with a whole lot.

Blood Simple

Blood Simple (1984)

Dir. Joel Coen

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, Samm-Art Williams, M. Emmet Walsh


I’ve written before about the breadth and depth of Coen Brothers’ filmography. Blood Simple is a perfect example of that depth. Their debut film, it serves as an artistic statement that would define the scope of their career. It finds the brothers arriving on the cinematic scene, nearly fully formed. Though later works would achieve more popularity or prestige, Blood Simple stands out as one of the great debuts in all of film, resembling more the work of an established filmmaker at the height of his or her powers than the first offering from a couple of neophytes. It establishes their interest in genre filmmaking, and many of their trademark cinematic devices appear in the film, at least in rudimentary forms. Far from serving as a still-developing sketch, or an indicator of potential artistry, Blood Simple is a fully formed near-masterpiece in its own right. It’s a dark tale of murder, adultery, and deception set against the backdrop of the Texas desert that winds itself up to a frenzy by the third act and maintains a breakneck pace towards disaster. An unyielding thriller that can keep an audience on the edge of their seat for the duration, the film stands up among the best work that the Coen Brothers have done in their long and fruitful career, despite still being somewhat underseen when compared to their more popular works.

The film opens with Ray (Getz) and Abby (McDormand) driving down a Texas highway at night. Their conversation concerns Abby’s failing marriage to Marty (Hedaya), who also happens to own the bar that Ray works at. Though their stated destination is Houston, the two pull into a motel and spend the night. Marty, suspecting their affair, has hired a private investigator, Loren Visser, (Walsh) to follow them, and he snaps a few photos of them in their hotel room as proof of the affair. When he provides this proof to Marty, the detective implies that for the right price he’d be willing to eliminate Marty’s problem, though Marty initially turns him down. Eventually, though, Marty seeks out Visser, hiring him to kill both Ray and Abby for $10,000. Rather than go through with the hit, Visser breaks into Ray’s home and steals Abby’s gun, then takes photos of them sleeping again. He returns to Marty with doctored photos, depicting the sleeping couple as corpses riddled with bullet holes, and after receiving his payment he double-crosses Marty, shooting him in the chest with Abby’s gun and leaving him to bleed out. Later, Ray returns to the bar to find an unresponsive Marty and Abby’s gun. Thinking that she has killed Marty, he decides to cover up the murder. The ensuing cover up leads to miscommunications between Ray and Abby, with each thinking that the other is responsible for the killing of Marty, while Visser engages in a deadly pursuit of the couple, hoping to erase any link to his crime.

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Blood Simple is a master class in economical storytelling. At its core, it’s a straightforward revenge story, and even as its narrative gets more complex with the added double-crosses and misunderstandings, it doesn’t lose any focus or narrative momentum. The film essentially has only five characters, the previously mentioned four, plus Meurice (Williams), the other bartender at Marty’s bar, who finds himself tangentially caught up in the murder plot. Largely though, the film revolves around the principals in the love triangle and the murderous Visser, as they play out a savage game of cat and mouse in the Texas back country. With a few notable exceptions, the Coens eschew narrative ambiguity or overarching mystery as drivers of tension in the film, instead letting the audience in on all of the details of the story. Watching the characters make questionable decisions and wrong assumptions about one another heightens the tension for the audience, as the spectators are able to see the Greek tragedy unfolding in front of them, even as the characters are blind to their surroundings. In fact, the title comes from a turn of phrase in which someone is said to be “blood simple” after being rendered incapable of higher thought or decision making in the face of violent surroundings. The film makes the viewer want to reach through the screen and shake Ray and Abby, warning them of the impending doom that’s closing in.

The Coens also heighten narrative tension through the film’s masterful appropriation of classical noir visual style. The Coens have transported their crime drama from its usual urban setting to the middle of nowhere in the Texas desert, but they otherwise retain many of the stylistic cues of the genre. Aside from a few sunbaked exteriors, the film is dark, scenes often employing contrasting chiaroscuro lighting. Shadows are extreme, with characters’ faces often partially or totally obscured by darkness as they issue straightforward, hardboiled dialogue. There is more than enough visual information in the frame to make up for the paucity of verbal context. The shadows reflect both the dubious nature of the characters’ morality, and their duality. In this film, there are no true heroes; everyone is kissed by darkness in some way. Borrowing a trick from Sergio Leone, the Coens frame their characters in claustrophobic close-up, highlighting every pore and bead of sweat. At times, lazy flies are allowed to buzz in and out of the frame, crawling along Visser’s brow while he meets with Marty to discuss their dirty deals. To say the film is atmospheric would be an understatement, as its mise-en-scene does more than suggest the seediness of its environs, it insists upon the palpability of the griminess of this universe. At times, the desperation practically leaps from the screen.

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In addition to successfully adapting the tropes of the noir film, the Coens begin to establish their own unique visual and narrative style in Blood Simple. The slow burning tension of later films like Fargo and No Country For Old Men is on display here, with the brothers already proving to be masters of pace and timing. The film’s first two acts are languorously paced. Scenes of dialogue are allowed to play out slowly, either unexpectedly erupting into acts of violence, or, rather, expected violence is denied. The Coens punctuate their shot/reverse shot with stylish tracking shots and rapid zooms that force the viewer to take notice. The final third of the film boils over with tension as Visser closes in on Abby and Ray, stalking them through her apartment. The characters have all gotten on a runaway train, and they’re forced to pursue the ride to its logical end. The violence in the film, as in most of the brothers’ later films, is matter-of-fact, an unfortunate consequence of the corrupted world in which these characters live. It seems that the Coens enjoy spinning yarns about everyday people who find themselves embroiled in larger schemes, and the roots of that narrative preoccupation are in Blood Simple.

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The performances in the film are all top notch, with the Coens already showing a deft hand at directing actors. In what was her first ever film role, McDormand is perfect as Abby. Her performance gives the character just enough subtle edge to keep her true nature in the dark until the film’s end. It’s hinted that Abby might be some sort of femme fatale, but her actual level of duplicity is hard to pin down. She’s a woman torn between a man she loves and one she fears, but McDormand never plays her as a dependent. She has steely resolve, and agency, that grows to a lethal capacity in the film’s final showdown with Visser. She’s able to balance manic outbursts of emotion and quietly determined acts of violence, and remain convincing in both circumstances. Neither Getz nor Hedaya are given much dialogue to work with, but they embody both of their roles with a lived-in physicality. Hedaya’s Marty haunts most of the film as a dead or dying presence, his body often visible on the edges of the frame as a reminder of the murder that has embroiled all of these characters. Getz plays Ray as a working stiff who’s simply in over his head, but his workmanlike approach belies a darker side to the character. When it comes time to dispose of Marty’s body, Ray drives him out to the desert where he finds out that Marty is mortally wounded, but not dead yet. He proceeds to bury him alive in a harrowing, slowly-paced scene that escalates the stakes and the tension in the film. There is no dialogue, but both actors give memorable performances, with Hedaya struggling mightily to stay alive while Getz slowly, steadily shovels dirt into his face.

It’s Walsh, however, who steals the film with his unhinged portrayal of the sleazy detective, Visser. Unlike the other characters in the film, there is little duality to Visser. Walsh plays him as purely evil, and in fact, he seems to enjoy and revel in his impurity. He breathes malice and corruption into his words, and his physical performance is palpably slimy. Visser seems to ooze into locked apartments, snapping his covert photographs and stealing bits of evidence, his stealth belied by the actor’s large stature. When it is time for him to pursue his quarry in earnest, Walsh plays Visser as a ruthless, efficient hunter, stalking Abby through her apartment until she is finally able to get the drop on him. Walsh’s performance is similar to John Goodman’s performance as Charlie Mundt in Barton Fink. Both characters come to symbolize evil incarnate in their filmic worlds, but unlike Mundt, Visser is rotten to the core. Where Goodman’s good-natured charm shines through some of Mundt’s cracks, Walsh never allows any light to permeate Visser’s dark patina. Even his humor is black as the Texas asphalt over which he tracks Ray and Abby.

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In lesser hands, a movie like Blood Simple might add up to just another paint-by-numbers pot boiler. The familiar elements are all present here: a spurned lover spurred to murderous rage, cases of double-cross and mistaken identity, a Chekhov’s gun which fulfills its narrative promise. However, the Coens routinely elevate basic subject matter and genre filmmaking to the level of complex, high art, and that streak is begun with their debut. They take a very straightforward story in Blood Simple and filter it through excellently realized character work and impeccable visual style to produce an end result that is engaging and visionary. Most of their films are genre experiments, but rarely are they as pure as Blood Simple. The film sets out to deliver a compelling tale of murder and do it in a suspenseful manner, despite removing narrative ambiguity, and it succeeds entirely. Like the characters in the film, once things start to break bad, the audience is simply along for the ride, hoping to survive to the end. When that end arrives, the audience has been taken on a sickening ride that explores the depths of moral depravity and human capacity for malice. Many of the Coen Brothers’ narrative and stylistic obsessions are on display here, so it is a must watch for any fan of their corpus, as well as any fan of well-realized suspense and crime films.

Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Dir. Mel Brooks

Written by: Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger

Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens


Mel Brooks is one of the great masters of film comedy, and I was a fan from early in childhood. I don’t know if I saw Young Frankenstein first or Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but those were the movies that introduced me to Brooks’s brand of humor, both broad and witty, high- and low-brow, verbal and slapstick. Half of the jokes went right over my young head, but it didn’t matter because there were so many jokes. Some of the simplest jokes in Mel Brooks’s movies are the best, and thinking back on it, I think my love of comedy probably came from the “walk this way” gag in Young Frankenstein. It’s such a simple, stupid sight gag, but it works perfectly and it’s laugh out loud funny. From there, I started getting really into comedy. I became interested in comedy as a type of art, and in what really made certain things funny. Sometime in the mid-90s, Comedy Central was added to our cable package and I started watching stand-up and tons of classic comedies. Somewhere along the line, I must have encountered Blazing Saddles, but I can’t remember the first time specifically. I’m sure it was on some lazy morning or afternoon during my summer vacation from school while my parents were at work, but I don’t really remember watching Blazing Saddles until I was a little older, probably 14 or 15 and going into high school. It wasn’t until that age that I was really able to appreciate the movie for the kind of masterpiece that it was, anyways.

I know that I watched the movie at least a few times during high school, but it wasn’t until it was screened in a film class that I took my senior year of high school that the real comic genius of Blazing Saddles sank in for me. The class helped to put the movie into a proper context for me. It introduced me to some of the classic Westerns that Blazing Saddles was sending up, and also to some early classic comedies to help put the film into a historical context in that sense. Thinking back on it, it was pretty amazing that my public high school in West Virginia offered a film class at all, but I was lucky that it did because it would be a very formative experience for me. I have that class to thank for introducing me to so many great American films, as well as a handful of foreign classics, and for cementing my desire to pursue an education and a career in film. The class was a senior-only elective that was taught by an English teacher with a particular interest in movies, and she varied the curriculum, including silent films, art house, and classics both new and old from all genres. It was great.

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The film stars Cleavon Little as Bart, a railroad laborer who becomes the first black sheriff in the West. Bart is installed in his position by the corrupt Hedley Lamar (Korman), who is hoping to undermine the town of Rock Ridge and drive out its citizens so that he can buy up their property and profit in a land deal when the railroad passes through the town. Bart is in the unenviable position of being a black man in a frontier town full of white people (who all seem to be related), but he eventually is able to win them over just in time to defend Rock Ridge from Lamar’s schemes. Unable to shake the town’s confidence in Bart, Lamar decides to recruit an army and take Rock Ridge by force. With the help of Jim (Wilder), a once-famous gunfighter who is now Rock Ridge’s resident drunk, and his old friends on the railroad, Bart is able to conceive of a plan to save Rock Ridge from Lamar and his minions. In classic Western fashion, they construct a fake town, rig it with dynamite, and when the army attacks, they blow men and horses alike sky high. A chaotic brawl ensues with the characters spilling out of the film, over the fourth wall, and into the “real world.” Eventually, Bart and the Kid meet back up in the world of the film (after taking a break to watch a bit of it in the movie theater), and, in a closing act fitting for Western heroes, ride off into the sunset…in a limousine.

The film’s humor is all over the place, and it is one of the most jam-packed comedies that I’ve ever seen, with only Airplane! possibly packing more jokes into its scant runtime. Blazing Saddles, and nearly all of Brooks’s comedies, acts as a catchall for 20th century comedy. It embraces the shtick and musicality of Brooks’s roots as a Borscht Belt comedian, the physicality of slapstick, high-brow conceptual humor, and pointed social satire. It’s the kind of movie that can surprise you on repeat viewings with new jokes, because you missed them while you were busy laughing at the other jokes. In addition to acting as a repository of American comedic tradition, Blazing Saddles also acts as a deconstructive tool for traditional myths of Americana in general. Brooks takes the traditional American Western film and turns many of its tropes on their heads to provide a commentary on the false nature of those American creation myths. For him, the frontier was not a promised land, peopled by cowboy heroes conquering nature through sheer force of will and determination. It was, instead, peopled by white men too boorish or corrupt to recognize the basic human decency of another man simply because his skin is a different shade.

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Watching Blazing Saddles in school, in particular, felt somehow subversive. Not only was the film’s humor too cutting edge for a classroom setting, even thirty years after the fact, its social and political commentary felt progressive in a modern setting as well. The film’s take on race relations in America felt as fresh and accurate in 2004 as it must have felt in 1974, unfortunately. The film’s treatment of racism, while humorous, is rightfully complex. In Blazing Saddles, as in real life, bigotry is the mindset of the ignorant and the crass. The townsfolk of Rock Ridge, aren’t painted as cruel or unsympathetic people, but more as simpletons. They are uneducated, likely inbred, and fearful of anyone different than themselves because they have been fed a steady stream of misinformation about other groups of people. After they realize that Bart is a just, kind, and capable sheriff, they begin to warm to him, although only inasmuch as he is able to help them out of their own bad situation. For his own part, Bart has to prove himself doubly capable, just as many minorities today find that they have to work twice as hard in order to gain the same achievements as their white counterparts due to false biases against them.

I think that the great achievement of Blazing Saddles, however, is in pointing out the roots of bigotry and intolerance. While the townsfolk are ugly and crass, their racial hatred is stoked by the desires of the film’s true villain, Hedley Lamar. He attempts to use racism as a tool to help him achieve his political and capitalist goals, installing Bart as the sheriff in an attempt to destabilize the status quo of Rock Ridge enough that he can swoop in and profit from others’ losses. Bigotry is a tool that has been used by the upper class to fragment the working class for centuries, and Blazing Saddles depicts this truth subtly and perfectly. Race is a social construct used to divide people who should otherwise be working together for mutual benefit, and keeping people of different ethnicities and skin colors fighting amongst themselves has been key to maintaining a status quo in which the same wealthy land and business owners reap the most benefit. There is no room for equality in capitalism. While people are all, obviously, biologically the same, it is in the benefit of the ruling class to uphold the myth of racial difference.

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One of the best and easiest ways for people to step outside of their comfort zones, racially speaking, is to engage with art that is made by and about the lives of people who may come from a different ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic background than themselves. One of the greatest things a movie can do for an audience is introduce them to a new way of thinking or open their eyes to a different way of life than they might be accustomed to. I was lucky to grow up in an open-minded household where people of all shapes, sizes, skin colors, and walks of life were welcomed and celebrated. I had and have friends from many different backgrounds. I am happy to live in a world that is diverse and multicultural, because I think that experiencing other cultures and other types of people inherently makes me a better and better-rounded person. But for someone who is not as sold on the values of inclusivity and equality, seeing a movie with a strong or relatable black protagonist might be the first step to some sort of understanding. I’m in no way making apologies or excuses for people who hold racist or bigoted beliefs, because I don’t think there is any place for that sickness in a modern free society, but I do know that there are people who eagerly accept the information that is provided for them without seeking out counterpoint or clarification because they simply don’t know any better. Vitriol can be persuasive, but so can humor. Sometimes the easiest way to someone’s heart is through their funny bone. I think that maybe Mel Brooks had this in mind when he made Blazing Saddles.

Blade Runner

Blade Runner (1982)

Dir. Ridley Scott

Written by: Hampton Fancher & David Peoples (from the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick)

Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos


Blade Runner is, without doubt, my favorite film that I have so far reviewed for this project. By now, my affinity for science fiction is probably apparent, and I believe that Blade Runner is the finest modern science fiction film ever made. It carries on the traditions of genre classics, both in its style and in its themes, while also breaking new ground and introducing new tropes that would become staples of the sci-fi film for years to come. The film introduced the trappings of cyberpunk to the screen, and its dystopic vision of a future in which advanced cybernetic technology and artificial intelligence exist alongside the crumbling ruins of a once-proud earthbound 20th century society has informed the style of science fiction ever since. Without Blade Runner there is no Robocop, no Matrix, no Ghost in the Shell. Its importance in the history of the genre can’t be understated, and, to me, it is a perfect film.

The film’s opening title roll succinctly and directly introduces the film’s themes, as well as the future world of 2019 in which it is set:

“Early in the 21st century, the Tyrell Corporation advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase – a being virtually identical to a human – known as a Replicant. The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth – under penalty of death. Special police squads – Blade Runner Units – had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.”

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Rick Deckard (Ford) is the titular Blade Runner, who is coerced to take one final assignment before his own retirement. A group of Replicants have escaped from one of the Off-world colonies, murdering over two dozen humans in the process, and Deckard is tasked with finding and retiring them. While tracking Pris (Hannah), Batty (Hauer), and the other Replicants, Deckard meets and falls in love with Rachael (Young), an advanced prototype Replicant who has been implanted with a human’s memories. Deckard’s relationship with Rachael causes him to question the nature of humanity as well as the moral implications of his hunt for the Replicants.

The film’s premise is simple, but its presentation is incredibly complex. Scott packs the frame with visual information, introducing details about this world through a unique and unmistakable aesthetic. The film is unrelentingly dark, borrowing and updating the aesthetic of the noir film. This dark, gray color palette is reflective of the fact that though Blade Runner presents a high-tech future, this is no age of enlightenment. It seems that society has regressed rather than progressed in spite of the strides of science and technology, with all but a few people living in relative squalor, scraping just to get by. The benefits of technology are reserved for the wealthy, like Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) who lives in a penthouse atop the massive Tyrell Building, which houses his corporation and which towers over the slums where most of the film’s action takes place. The shadowy streets below the Tyrell Building are lit up by crisscrossing search lights, and characters’ faces are illuminated by the flashing lights of the omnipresent flying police cruisers, giving the world a paranoid sense of constant surveillance. The only steady sources of light are the glowing neon billboards, advertising products like Coca-Cola and Atari. In the future that Blade Runner imagines, it would seem that traditional nation-states have been abandoned in favor of an overarching corporate hegemony.

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Blade Runner is as dense symbolically and textually as it is visually, with Scott drawing on a history of literary and filmic influences to further his film’s themes. One of the most obvious parallels in the film can be drawn from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Arguably one of the first works of science fiction, the tale of man’s quest to play God and create life has its fingerprints all over Blade Runner. All of the Replicants are, in a way, spiritual cousins to the famous Monster. His body, constructed as it was from corpse parts, was a reminder of man’s mortality, just as the Replicants’ built-in four year life span is a constant reminder of the fleeting nature of life on earth. And just like the Monster, the Replicants never asked to be created, but now that they have been given the gift of life, they naturally begin to seek out meaning in their existence. Theirs is a tragic case of an unfortunate being that was given all of the capacities to question their existence, but none of the means to truly enjoy it or make it meaningful. The film also takes several cues from Fritz Lang’s sci-fi classic, Metropolis, which concerns itself with widening class inequality in a seemingly Utopian future. In both its themes and its art design, Blade Runner owes a deep debt of gratitude to the earlier film. These literary and cinematic callbacks help to align Blade Runner in the larger history of science-fiction, and align its themes with the ur-questions that sci-fi has been asking since its inception: “What is Man’s place in the Universe?” “What, if any, is the will of our Creator?” and, ultimately, “What does it mean to be Man?”

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These questions are most directly brought up in the character of Roy Batty, leader of the rogue Replicants, and his quest to meet his maker. Religious symbolism is prevalent throughout the film, but the most obvious religious motifs and iconography are associated with the character of Roy Batty. His character is the most fleshed out of all the Replicants, and he seems to be the only one with a concrete goal in mind after their mutiny and escape to Earth. He is on a quest to meet Dr. Tyrell and inquire as to the purpose of his short life. Batty is the prodigal son, returned to his father to be celebrated as a crowning achievement, but he’s also the avenging angel, bringing Tyrell his comeuppance in the form of a swift and brutal death. Later in the film, Scott makes a more direct religious allusion when he has Batty drive a nail through his palm while he is chasing Deckard through the abandoned hotel at the end of the film. The gesture has major significance in the context of the larger scene – Batty uses the nail to stabilize his malfunctioning hand as it becomes apparent that he is shutting down – but when coupled with Batty cradling a dove while he gives his final soliloquy, the symbolic meaning is even more apparent. All of the Replicants, but particularly Batty, are Christ figures. They were created to save humanity from the hardships of labor and war, but most importantly, like Christ, they were created to die. They were also created as an Other, something for their human counterparts to hold up as an example of non-life, non-humanity. However, unlike Christ, their suffering and death is as robbed of meaning and permanence as their short lives. Like Batty says before he dies, all of the wonderful things that he has seen, things that no human will ever experience, will be washed away, “like tears in rain.” If the measure of humanity is one’s capacity to empathize and value the experience and the life of one less fortunate that oneself, then the humans in Blade Runner have failed the test spectacularly.

Of course, it is really the tragic figure of the doomed Replicants that the audience is meant to pity by the film’s end. Their circumstances, being brought into a cruel world that seeks to use them for slave labor and then discard them after four years of life, is naturally pitiable enough, but the performances of the actors portraying the Replicants, particularly Hannah and Hauer, breathe humanity into these robots and give them an emotional depth often unseen in films about androids. Brion James and Joanna Cassidy are both good in their roles as Leon and Zhora, respectively, but these two Replicants aren’t given nearly as much screentime as Pris and Batty. All of the actors play the Replicants with a kind of savagery that’s bubbling just underneath the surface. Hannah plays Pris like a wounded dog in her first appearance in the film. She beds down under some trash outside Tyrell Corporation geneticist, J.F. Sebastian’s (William Sanderson) home. When he discovers her, she’s initially frightened, shying away from his gaze before she reluctantly agrees to come inside and be his friend. Of course this is all a canny set up, a ruse to gain Batty access to Dr. Tyrell, but Pris is convincing enough for the naïve, lonely Sebastian. To this point, it seems that the Replicants are prone to lash out violently when backed into a corner, programmed to focus on short term survival, but when Batty and Pris are reunited at Sebastian’s, they exchange a series of small glances that make the audience aware that this was all a part of their cunning plan.

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Eventually Deckard tracks Pris down at the dilapidated hotel that Sebastian has taken over as his home. Pris gets the better of Deckard, getting the drop on him by pretending to be one of Sebastian’s harmless animatronic creations and then showing off her advanced athletic prowess as she does back handsprings across the room, grabbing Deckard in a choke hold with her legs. Rather than killing Deckard, she goes back for another gymnastic run across the room, giving him time to recover. Deckard shoots Pris down and she dies, screaming and writhing on the floor. There’s both a mechanical and an animalistic quality to the way that she twitches on the floor before dying. In one sense, she seems to be malfunctioning, but in another she seems to be a panicked animal, caught in a trap, trying desperately to free itself when it’s already too late. In this brief scene, Pris encapsulates the experience of being a Replicant so well. She lures Deckard in with her cunning, and overpowers him with her superior physicality, but her downfall is her innate desire to show off. She could have easily killed Deckard, but Pris instead opts to give another display of her power and it ultimately costs her her life.

The most advanced Replicant, of course, is Batty. He’s the oldest of the four, only a few months away from the end of his four-year life span, and he has had the most lived experience and learned the most about mankind and what it means to be human. Rutger Hauer is a tour de force in the film’s final scenes, playing Batty as both Id and Ego as he pursues Deckard to the rooftop of the hotel. The hunter has become the hunted, as Batty attempts to give Deckard a taste of the fear that the Replicants must feel every day. Batty, like Pris, displays animalistic qualities, howling and barking after Deckard and running lithely through the crumbling building. This is, of course, only one side of his personality, as he also repeatedly goads Deckard with quips about fairness, competence, and humanity. He seems omnipresent as his voice projects from the walls, crashing through the plaster on occasion to remind Deckard that his pursuer is just on his heels. Batty’s manic pursuit of Deckard is one of the film’s most memorable sequences, with Hauer’s intensely blue eyes and menacing smile popping off the screen. He plays the doomed Replicant with malice, but never lets the audience forget that Batty is a tragic figure.

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Batty’s final soliloquy, which Hauer wrote himself on set, gets to the crux of the film’s argument about humanity. In just the four years that he was given to live, Batty has experienced and seen things that no human ever will. He has developed a personality, emotions, and, most importantly, a set of memories that are uniquely his and a bit of life experience from which he can draw. These are the qualities that make Batty a human being, even though he is not designated as such. When he is no more, all of those experiences will be lost. Being granted life, Batty’s desire was to live it, freely, to gain experience and knowledge, but his creators had another plan for him. When Batty saves Deckard from falling off the roof, he passes the ultimate test of his humanity, ironically a test that none of the film’s human characters seems possible of passing. Batty has developed empathy, and by allowing Deckard to live, and explaining to him that the fear that he is feeling at that moment is akin to the fear that the Replicants feel every day of their existence, Batty is passing that lesson on. Before he dies, Batty releases a dove which flies skyward. The camera follows it up and gives the first glimpse of a blue sky beyond the smokestacks and fog of Los Angeles.

I haven’t even touched on so many things that I love about Blade Runner, but to try to fit everything in to one post would be a fool’s errand. I called it a perfect film, and I feel it is that because it’s more than the sum of its parts. It works on both an ethical level and on a strictly narrative level, leaving the audience with questions to ponder about both. The film contains great performances, a fantastic score, a visual aesthetic that helped to influence and define an era of science-fiction filmmaking. It asks heavy philosophical questions and largely lets the audience fill in their own answers. The basic question that viewers of the film tend to ask, namely “Is Deckard a Replicant?”, can be answered by posing another, more important question: “What does it mean to be a human when the most humane characters in the film are the Replicants?” It ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not Deckard is a man or a machine, because in Blade Runner humanity is not strictly defined by the presence or absence of mechanical parts. It’s defined by what the characters do with the life they’re given. It’s defined by their desire for “More life, fucker/father.” It’s defined by a striving to be and do more, to consume experience with a voraciousness and to give meaning to that experience.