The first time I even heard of the movie known as Blade Runner, I was ten years old and in the backseat of a stationwagon. I’d just gotten picked up by Rebecca’s mom as part of a four-kid carpool I was in. Rebecca’s mom had just seen the movie the night before and wanted to talk about it to the oldest and most intellectually sophisticated person in the car with her at the time, which happened to be yours truly. She had enjoyed the film, but she also frankly disclosed a certain amount of surprise and confusion. It was nothing like Star Wars, Alien, Empire or any of the other big-name sci-fi movies making their way through the movie theaters at that time, the dawn of the big-budget special-effects blockbuster era. She wanted to describe BR to me, but couldn’t, not adequately. This of course drove me mad with a desire to see it.
But my parents were strict about movie ratings, and so, since it was R for Restricted, I didn’t get to see Blade Runner until its television premier in 1986. I didn’t really understand it myself, but, like a lot of movies at that time, I made a mental footnote to watch it again later if I ever had the chance. Thanks to first VHS and then DVD, I’ve since had many chances to watch it. I’ve also watched a lot of Ridley Scott’s other movies, and a lot of movies inspired by Blade Runner. I’ve also read a lot of Philip K. Dick short stories, and watched pretty much every PKD-based movie I can find.
Nothing is really quite like Blade Runner. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite movie, by any stretch, but it’s probably one of my favorite movies to think about, take apart, and analyze. It’s also one of my favorite movies just to see – it’s such a fantastically beautiful and richly textured movie. I can enjoy it almost as much with the sound off as I can with the sound on. I love its mood, and its moodiness. I love the world that it creates, more than the story or the characters.
I’ve never been able to figure out why I’m so fascinated by certain parts of Blade Runner, or why, on the whole, it seems so different from so many other movies. So imagine my surprise and reserved delight when I discovered that a man named Paul Sammon had written a book in the 90′s called Future Noir: the Making of Blade Runner. Here was a book that, maybe, might just possibly give me a clue as to what’s so different and elusive about this one particular movie. I put the book on my wishlist, but then decided I’d probably never buy it.
Like I said, it’s not my favorite movie. I’m not even sure I can say it’s a terribly strong movie, all told. Harrison Ford himself, the leading man, says it’s one of his least favorite movies he’s ever been involved with. But here’s the thing. When I watch that movie, I feel like it’s brushing up against some kind of ceiling, and if it had just had a little more oomph, strength, speed, brilliance, I don’t know what, it could have, I don’t know, somehow transcended. Transcended what? I don’t know. Become what instead? I also don’t know. All I know is that sometimes I feel like in Blade Runner, Ridley Scott achieved something that might have put that film on the threshold of being something else entirely.
Which makes me sound like a crazy sort of fan. Which I’m definitely not. So I put off buying Future Noir. Because I didn’t want to feed what felt like an embryonic obsession.
Then I completely and totally just happened to run across one used copy of it at the Strand in NYC this past winter. Well. What did you think I would do? I threw my hands up in the air, said what the hell, and bought it. I know a sign when I see it after all.
Now, a couple months later, Future Noir has finally bubbled up the bedside reading stack. I’ve read it almost cover to cover (I skipped the short chapter on how the special effects were done, and a couple of the appendices), and I wanted to write a review, but it’s hard to write a review of a book like this. So even though this blog entry started its life with intention of being a book review, the actual review book is going to be pretty short.
Future Noir mostly does what it sets out to do, tell how BR was made. Sammon goes into great exclusive detail regarding how the rights to the story were acquired, how the screenplay evolved over time, how Scott got involved, and so on. The longest chapter of the book is a scene-by-scene breakdown of the movie, and each scene usually has one or two “behind the scenes” anecdotes that are just the sort of thing you’d hope for from a book like this. Sammon’s obviously a huge fan of the movie, and went to great lengths to get access to some of the people and materials that he did. He’s a true film geek and a true, unapologetic BR fan.
This very fandom, though, is also one of the places where the book falls down a couple times. There’s more space devoted to gushing over how great BR is than there is space devoted to critical analysis or deconstruction. He doesn’t ask hard questions of his interviewees. That’s all ok, though. No one but a fan could have possibly cared enough to write this book.
Also, I have to say, Sammon did a great job in getting himself conversations with almost all the major players involved with the making of BR. The only people he didn’t get any substantial time with were Harrison Ford and Sean Young, the stars. While this may seem like a big omission, he actually does have interview excerpts from so many other big players – writers, producer, director, other actors – you almost don’t notice these two glaring absences. Ah well. I never thought Young did much for the film anyway.
The biggest problem, though, with FN is not anything Sammon had any say over: Future Noir is just really dated at this point. It came out in 1996, fourteen years into the movie’s history, sure, but now that’s less than half way into its 31-year life span. Since then, the so-called Final Cut has been released, the authoritative version, and the only version with Ridley Scott’s full seal of approval. At the time that FN came out, the most authoritative version was the so-called “Director’s Cut”, which was still a compromise between what Scott wanted and what the studio let him get away with.
More significantly, however, Sammon wound up missing everything that the Internet would do for BR, or the plateau to which said Internet would allow fandom of any sort to ascend. Another strip of fabric that’s inevitably missing from Sammon’s otherwise master opus is all the material that got scraped up to serve as “bonus materials” on the various DVD boxed sets, 25th anniversary edition and 30th anniversary Blu-Ray edition. All of these sources probably could have informed FN‘s ultimate direction and scope.
I definitely recommend Future Noir to anyone interested in learning more about Blade Runner. It’s a great place to begin, especially if, like me, you’re trying to decide how much of a fan you want to be. Because, as much as Sammon loves this particular movie, somehow, this book winds up laying out what should be plain to see: it’s just a movie. A movie that happened to come along before it’s time maybe, and maybe a movie that had a creative director behind it who was just coming into the height of his powers, but still for all that, just a movie.
Me? Now that I can see how much of what went into Blade Runner was actually flawed and broken and human, I’m actually more interested in how it, as a work of art, manages to rise above its medium and point to something else.
But that’s another blog entry.