Dr. Greenberg practices psychiatry in Manhattan, New York. He continues to publish frequently on film, media, and popular culture. For many years, his cinema column appeared in Psychiatric Times. He has appeared frequently on national and international network and cable television programs including Good Morning America, Today, CBS Evening and Sunday News, PBS, CNN, Showtime, and BBC-TV. Please address communications to Dr. Greenberg at [email protected].
Over his long career, Ridley Scott has directed movies in many genres—historical and science-fiction pictures predominating. At times, he has adhered strictly to genre conventions. He’s also radically subverted them (eg, Thelma and Louise’s  tragi-comic feminist critique of the macho buddy road movie).
Alien (1979) was Scott’s first genre-blender, melding tropes of horror and science-fiction. Audiences came in droves to see it—and to watch it again. The return phenomenon, so dear to Tinseltown’s machers and shakers, was caused by Alien’s formidable cinematic power and its gruesome chest burster sequence. Viewers eager for an even bloodier Alien sequel were disappointed and puzzled by Scott’s next film, Blade Runner (1982), based on Philip K. Dick’s short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Most critics were also displeased.
The original Blade Runner is set in the devastated, yet still functioning Los Angeles of 2018. Dank rain drizzles incessantly from a blemished sky; the opalescent air is breathable, but permanently polluted. The rusted-out mechanisms of this dominion of detritus are not replaced, but “retrofitted,” like the water lines snaking up building exteriors. The entire mise-en-scène has a distinctive “retro” look, conflated with Japanese and—curiously—vaguely Mayan architecture and interiors.
The wealthy live in totemic skyscrapers. Packed grotty streets are reminiscent of an older Tokyo or an Istanbul grand bazaar. Street-people hustle whatever trinkets or grub they can; speak an incomprehensible argot of Japanese, English, whatever. The swirling crowds comprise an omnium-gatherum of races and faces. Clothing comprises a dizzying assortment of high fashionista gear and Salvation Army cast-offs.
Febrile consumerism is ubiquitous in this mercantile dystopia, where global corporations, many Japanese, vie for power (possibly alluding to the escalating economic sway of Japan in the real 1980s). Stupendous fluorescent Coca-Cola signs blaze across building facades. Gaudy blimps hawk the pleasures of life on the “off-world colonies,” where every whim is gratified by obedient androids.
“Replicants”—servants, soldiers, whores—have been genetically engineered by genius entrepreneur, Dr. Eldon Tyrell. Despite an adult appearance, the early models were immature; potentially unstable. So Tyrell provided them with a 4-year life span.
Tyrell’s latest “Nexus” models match or surpass human capabilities. But their dawning sentience is sowing seeds of revolt. Replicants are sporadically killing their masters. A special LA police “Blade Runner” squad has been formed to “retire” them.
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a disillusioned ex-Blade Runner, is unwillingly re-enlisted to execute a particularly vicious replicant hit-squad, led by a super-Nexus warrior, Roy Batty. Deckard is summoned to Tyrell’s corporate flagship to test “a human subject,” his niece Rachel (Sean Young), a ruby-lipped beauty in iconic 1940 Vogue apparel.
Tyrell later reveals to Deckard that, unbeknownst to her, Rachel is actually an “experimental” Nexus, with memory implants to provide “a cushion” against incipient rebellion. Suspecting her true identity, she flees Tyrell’s dubious protection.
Deckard is immediately drawn to her, and dismayed by Tyrell’s latest callous manipulation—“You’re talking about memories!!!” he protests. He goes on to kill Batty’s crew—but only when each attacks him. After Tyrell tells Batty that he cannot give him more life—the hope of that spurred the replicants’ return, Batty crushes his skull like an eggshell, then hunts down the hunter, Deckard.
The chase ends as Batty dangles Deckard over an urban abyss. Suddenly he hauls Deckard to safety, and quietly dies. “I never knew why he saved my life . . . I guess he loved life . . . any life . . . my life,” muses the amazed Deckard. Later, he discovers Rachel has returned to his apartment. The 2 renegades depart, their fate obscure.
The film’s acting is uniformly superb: Ford’s quotidian, ironic woodenness makes him a perfect Deckard. The script—by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples—is terse, mysteriously hieratic, dense with occulted meaning. Thus, Deckard’s furious superior officer: “Stop right there! You know how it is, Dec, you’re either cop or little people!” Batty, pursuing Deckard: “Come on, come on—aren’t you the good . . . MAN????
Blade Runner owes much of its power to Vangelis’s magnificent score, mostly electronic, in which Kabuki wails yield to 40’s torch songs. The music, heard alone, imbues the film with a soaring operatic quality.
Blade Runner probes the big questions without flinging them in the viewer’s face. Is memory fixed or plastic, with the potential for manipulation and even effacement by a malign state? Is our humanity—and morality—solely defined by past remembrance? How does memory articulate with one’s sense of origin and purpose—and, above all, of death?
Following a lackluster initial reception, Blade Runner went on first to acquire a cult following, then was lauded by critics and film-makers alike. Not only was it prized for narrative and technical achievements far ahead of its day, but for a prophetic vision of a degraded future.
After several recent years of intense speculation and secrecy, comes before us Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Unlike the first film, it has been universally praised by past viewers, current critics, and favorably received by viewers who never saw the first film.
I’ve said before that the best remake further probes the original film’s concerns. One wonders why the gifted Scott (producer), Denis Villeneuve (director), and Hampton Fancher (co-writer of both films) couldn’t create finer stuff than this empty vessel, ridden with the dumbed-down sound and fury of mainstream, franchise films today.
The new film posits that during a 3-year period of “darkness,” records of all human and replicant identities were expunged. The bankrupt Tyrell empire was succeeded by the Wallace Corporation. Its blind CEO, Neander Wallace, designed a new Nexus line, stronger, smarter than the earlier models—and absolutely loyal. This Tiresias in a Zegna suit spouts sententious Zen twaddle about creating an army of replicant “angels” that will spread his beneficence across the galaxy—could he but grind them out more quickly.
The protagonist, K (for Kafka?), one of the unfailingly obedient new breed, is charged with retiring the few remaining Nexus 8’s who went to ground after the “darkness.” K is played by Ryan Gosling, who usually projects an intriguing, distanced quality. Here, he merely runs the gamut of emotions between A and B.
While “retiring” a Nexus 8 in a desert shack, K discovers a trunk containing a female skeleton and a tattered baby’s sock. The bones are Rachel’s, who died giving birth to human/replicant twins fathered by Deckard. K is forced to choose between exterminating the twins so that society’s fragile status quo can be maintained; and Wallace’s lunatic plan to capture the female twin in aid of making her the fertile progenitor of his “angel” army.
But K becomes convinced that he himself is one of the twins, and therefore—at least partly—an autonomous human, rather than a thing of compliant biomorphic cog-and-wheels. He turns rebel, takes Deckard from his man-cave in a radioactive, gaudy Vegas hotel, and unites him with his grown daughter.
The new film’s overall look is not unimpressive, but this mise-en-scène exists for its own sake, conveying no impression that the sequel has evolved from Blade Runner’s ravaged world. LA’s evocative noir smokiness is replaced by an unappetizing pall, particularly in the Las Vegas sequences: which seem to have been shot through an orange rind.
Other visual citations of Blade Runner are scattered throughout the film willy-nilly, only constituting an empty gesture of familiarity with the original. A prostitute has the same frizzed blond hair and tatty dress as Pris, the much ill-used hooker from the first film. But Pris’s sensuous antic wit is utterly lacking.
Vangelis’s original score was supplemented by sibilant exhalations and murmurs, but the soundscape was never noisy. The new film’s music is composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the same team that captured Dunkirk’s (2017) fearful din so aptly. Here the music and ambient sound often rise to intolerable and meaningless tohubohu.
The original’s searching questions about memory, identity, and morality are also reduced to flat throwaways, stripped of any spirit of genuine, concerned inquiry. Poignant brooding over the existential imperative of free choice in the very teeth of death is replaced by the vacuous soliloquizing of Neander Wallace, literally blind to his unslakable madness for omnipotent power.
As Roy Batty’s life ebbs away before Deckard’s helpless gaze, he’s become more human than his maker in the best sense, transcending the illusions created by Tyrell’s implanted memories; acknowledging that the authentic experiences of his 4-year life span—brutal yet finally noble—have been rendered even more precious by accepting his transience. Here is his famous concluding speech:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe . . .
attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion . . .
I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. . . .
All those . . . moments . . . will be lost . . . in time,
like . . . tears . . . in rain.
I’m saddened—and not a little angry—that Blade Runner’s numinous, lyric beauty, its evocation of grace on the brink of inevitable dissolution, have all been washed away—like tears in rain—by this incoherent hollowed-out replicant.
This article was originally published on November 22, 2017 and has since been updated.