American literary critic Harold Bloom said the purpose of reading literature is to confront greatness. What I intend to do with the “Confronting…” series of blog posts is share some of the great stories I’ve encountered, regardless of format, and discuss why I think they’re great. I’d also like to hear your opinions, pro and con. My angle is as storyteller, not literary critic. I want to reflect on stories that have had lasting, repeated enjoyment for me, and understand why, so I can improve as a writer.
I’m going to start with the favorite film of my high school years, Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (1982).
If you were a teenager in the 80s, as I was, you probably found Blade Runner a stunning experience. I am 50 now, and I still remember walking out of that theater in far North Dallas in 1982, blinking in the sunlight, and wondering, “What the hell did I just see?”
It wasn’t just visually delicious. It wasn’t just the gorgeous soundtrack, or the charismatic villains. Something profound happens in that movie, but at 16, I couldn’t quite see it. I just knew it was there.
Here’s what I think keeps BLADE RUNNER great, three decades later — as Ezra Pound said, literature is news that stays news — and what I can learn from it now, as a storyteller.
The key to BLADE RUNNER is that the hero and the villain swap roles halfway through the film.
We start with Rick Deckard, reluctant cop, a specialist in hunting down and retiring (killing) replicants, known in the LA street slang as a “Blade Runner.”
We watch him confront his inner conflict as he hunts the replicant escapees down, one by one.
What is his inner conflict? He doesn’t want to kill replicants because he sees them as human, in all the ways that matter.
Halfway through the film — give or take — we start caring less for the self-loathing Deckard, and more for the direct, energetic Roy Batty. He confronts his creator and — contrary to multiple director’s cuts — says what we’d all like to say to God, at some point, when facing the death of loved ones or ourselves:
“I want more life, fucker.”
When the god of biomechanics won’t give him an extension, he doesn’t mope and drink and plink a piano — he pushes in Tyrell’s eyeballs and crushes his head.
In the end, it is Batty who recognizes his universal humanity, his connection with Deckard and doves and the rain and all that cool stuff, and saves Deckard’s life.
Batty is the hero of Blade Runner, not Deckard.
This hero reversal is probably why it wasn’t a commercial success. It was the 27th most popular American film of 1982, earning only a $27 million domestic gross in initial release against a budget of $28 million.
And yet, it became a cult classic. I’ve bought it in VHS, DVD, and streaming formats.
I’d argue that it’s a classic not because of the dizzying elements of ubiquitous corporate encroachment, nods to film noir, haunting soundtrack, Biblical-flood-as-endless-rain in LA, and speculations on gutterspeak — all fine details that support the story — but because we are tricked, and tricked nicely, into first rooting for the hero, and in the end, rooting for the villain.
I think for most moviegoers, this resulted in moral confusion, not pleasure. For weirdos like me, it was a revelation: The bad guy doesn’t think of himself as a bad guy. In some cases, the bad guy has a point.
I’d argue that if the producers wanted to make BLADE RUNNER a commercial success, and we had a time machine to go back to 1981 and make the necessary changes, the fix would be this:
They should reshoot the first half of the film from Batty’s perspective. Show him and his team crash landing on Earth, show him losing friends one at a time, until he finally has the chance kill his nemesis, the cunning Deckard — and, in his final breaths, show why he chooses not to, in a celebration of life itself.
In either form, Blade Runner would remain great. But in my remake, it wouldn’t confuse the audience.
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