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DRAM70121: Screen Research Methodologies Week 1: Seminar Task - Reception Studies

Omar Ahmed September 2012

Using Film Review Annual summarise the critical reception of one film from the 1980s. What debates and consensus are evident in these reviews and how do they relate to the film's critical reputation today? How might you account for any biases in these reviews?

Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott, US)

Of the sixteen reviews included in the entry for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), seven were negative, six were mixed and only four were positive in their critical analysis of the film. Therefore, based on the sixteen reviews, when Blade Runner was first released in 1982, the film received a mostly negative critical reception. However, the negative 1982 critical consensus is largely at odds with the elevated critical status of the film today, with many considering Blade Runner as a key eighties film, one of the first postmodern science fiction films and Ridley Scott’s most revered film. What follows is a summary of the three levels of critical opinion inferred from the sixteen reviews.

Many of the negative reviews were particularly damning of the film's inability to anchor the impressive visual design against a coherent narrative. Take for example Tom Milne’s review from Monthly Film Bulletin who had this to say: ‘The sets are indeed impressive, but they are no compensation for a narrative so lame that it seems in need of a wheelchair.’ (1982: 194) Such vitriolic sentiments were shared by Archer Winsten writing for The New York Post, ‘The picture is really nothing more than that basic battle between Good and Evil…the kids may be able to swallow this stuff without gagging.’ (1982: 45) Even David Denby, a credible voice of film criticism, articulated a hostility usually reserved for contemporary high concept blockbusters, calling Blade Runner ‘a terribly dull movie.’ (1982: 54) Since Blade Runner's first release, the academic discourse on science fiction cinema has broadened considerably and so has the types of science fiction films made today. One important factor, which has helped shift critical opinion on the film, is the emergence of cyberpunk as a sub culture in 1983. Released in 1982, and predating cyberpunk, the film is now largely regarded as a key starting point in the evolution of cyberpunk cinema.

The mixed feelings by some of the reviews prefigure how over the years the film would come to cautiously challenge such initial reservations underlined in 1982. One review in particular by Paul Elitzik (1982: 46), writing for Cineaste, expresses misgivings concerning the ending to the film, ‘Whether or not this future world has a place for happy endings, the “north” is too suddenly invented and the intrusion of wishful fantasy is jarring in its sentimentality.’ Such an observation raises a key debate concerning the film’s happy ending and the concept of narrative closure. Elitzik wasn’t alone in expressing his doubts about an ending bolted on by a major studio nervously marketing a big budget science fiction film. In his Film Quarterly review, Michael Dempsey was also critical of the way the ending seemed to undermine the character of Rachael, ‘when his narration suddenly reveals that she is not programmed to die in four years like the other replicants, finishes
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DRAM70121: Screen Research Methodologies Week 1: Seminar Task - Reception Studies

Omar Ahmed September 2012

off whatever poignancy still remains in her situation.’ (1982/83: 33) In light of the new improved ending that appeared in the film in 1992 as part of the director’s cut, Elitzik and Dempsey’s comments seem somewhat crucial in generating a discourse about one of the major flaws with the 1982 theatrical release. Perhaps the review that offered the fullest and most positive ideological appreciation was by the journal Jump Cut, followed closely by Film Quarterly. Although both Jump Cut and Film Quarterly mount a robust defence of the film's ideological complexities, it is likely their voice would have been overshadowed by more mainstream critical opinion such as newspaper critics including most notably David Denby (New York Times), Archer Winsten (New York Post) and Robert Asahina (New Leader). In the Jump Cut journal, writers Douglas Kellner, Flo Leibowitz & Michael Ryan consider the film as an ideological text and position the differing social and political aspects within a wider cultural studies framework. Their study came two years after the release of the film, arguing that Blade Runner contains ‘veiled allegorical critiques of advanced capitalism’ and that the film’s dystopia ‘stands as a sign of a crisis in U.S. ideology.’ (1984: 6) By maintaining an ideological critique of Blade Runner within a wider context makes their work stand out as somewhat pioneering in the field of studies that now surrounds such an influential film text. Additionally, such a study of the film may have also helped to maintain interest in the film with what was slowly become a growing legion of fans.

The 1982 critical response to Blade Runner in this instance can be divided and summarised into two clear categories: academic and populist. It is interesting to note that critical opinion can also be divided along such lines. Whereas the academic response was largely favourable, the populist one generally dismissed Blade Runner as just another science fiction film. Given the nature of most publications and the way they adopt and adhere to an editorial agenda is reflected in the biases at work in the reviews to Blade Runner.

Before I have a closer look at some of the differing biases, it is important to underline some of the key ideologies of Blade Runner. It’s a film that clearly does not celebrate the American dream (unlike many of the American films of that era were adept at doing) but instead offers a nightmarishly dystopian vision of the future in which corporate power, enslavement (both human and technological) and social despair marks the ideological shape of America. However, like many of the best science fiction films, although it is a future America, the parallels with contemporary reality especially an eighties Reaganite consumerist America, situates the film as a leftist critique of capitalist culture. Kellner, Leibowitz & Michael say that, ‘the film implicitly rejects aggression and violence, for both the replicant Roy and Deckard renounce their warrior roles’. (1984: 6) If such liberal tendencies do exist in Blade Runner then perhaps it might be safe to categorise Blade Runner as an oppositional science fiction film.

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DRAM70121: Screen Research Methodologies Week 1: Seminar Task - Reception Studies

Omar Ahmed September 2012

A key bias when it comes to discussing popular genres such as horror and especially science fiction films is cultural snobbery. Although science fiction films are still equated with low culture, academic discourse has fought hard over the years to impose a serious ideological approach. The review from New Leader by Robert Asahina is explicit from the outset about his derision for science fiction literature, ‘Let’s face it: as a (sub-) literary genre science fiction is trash. Enjoyable sometimes, but junk nonetheless.’ (1984: 19) Asahina goes further still by equating Blade Runner and other science fiction films released in the same year with fast food, thus representing the genre as disposable, fun and ultimately meaningless: ‘Perhaps the least appetizing of the bunch is Blade Runner’. (1984: 19) Had the film not attracted a cult following or a director's cut emerged then it is probable that Blade Runner would never have been taken seriously. The film's categorisation as science fiction would have been enough to dismiss its relative worth as nothing more than low cultural trash.

If the low culture argument holds weight then how do we account for the favourable critical reception of E.T., a science fiction film released weeks before Blade Runner. A potential ideological bias may be at work. In terms of ideology, Blade Runner offers what is a critique of capitalist culture whereas E.T. repeats familiar Spielbergian authorial traits concerning suburbia, family and crucially, the superficial validation of the American dream. In many ways, Blade Runner runs contrary to many of the dominant ideologies prevalent in a film such as E.T. In his gushing review of E.T., writer Denby excludes any discussions regarding the film’s sentimentality and sexism, ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is one of the most beautiful fantasy-adventure movies ever made.' (1982: 73) It makes one question why Denby condemns Blade Runner yet embraces E.T. when in truth both have their flaws. An authorial bias could also be part of the reason why Denby favours E.T. over Blade Runner since Spielberg’s career up to that point had marked him out as a credible film auteur with a reasonable body of work. The same was the not case for Ridley Scott who had only made two films before the release of Blade Runner; The Duellists (1977) and Alien (1979). It may be fair to say that Ridley Scott lacked the authorial credibility of a filmmaker like Spielberg and so a film like Blade Runner was more prone to attacks in its 1982 critical reception. Not only did the negative critical reception make it much more difficult for Blade Runner to find an audience but it also suggested to audiences that within the category of mainstream science fiction cinema, E.T. was a much better film. Interestingly, Phyllis Deutsch writing for Jump Cut in 1983 openly challenged the positive mainstream critical consensus of E.T. by arguing ‘the film’s sexism is explicit in the sexual stereotyping of its characters.’ (1983: 12) Unfortunately such ideological reasoning was undetectable in the glowing critical response to E.T.

Another seemingly important bias that creeps into many of the reviews is to do with the source material. It is likely some of the reviewers will have had read the original novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' and may even have been fans of the science fiction writer Philip K Dick. Such a fan position obviously complicates a neutral reading of the

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DRAM70121: Screen Research Methodologies Week 1: Seminar Task - Reception Studies

Omar Ahmed September 2012

film. Some of the reviews express reservations concerning the adaptation of Philip K Dick’s original novel, highlighting elements that have been omitted at the expense of the overall narrative. Although one could argue that it is the role of the writer to bring to light such omissions, changes or additions, a fan prejudice can inevitably determine overall critical judgement. For example writer Andrew Sarris in his review for Village Voice directly compares what are his personal appreciations of the novel to the film, 'Dick's novel is full of scenes of frightening paranoia and suspicion involving the various levels of "humanity." None of these "double agent" confrontations have materialised in Blade Runner.' (1982: 147) Nonetheless, in the long term such reservations have not prevented Blade Runner from being generally considered as one of the better adaptations of Philip K Dick's work.

One review in particular by Christian Science Monitor emphasises the inherent problems posed by publications, which have an overt and ideological editorial agenda. Christian Science Monitor is a religiously inclined publication, exhibiting a conservative attitude towards the film's depiction of violence. David Sterritt's review opens with the following, 'Blade Runner was directed by Ridley Scott, who seems determined to outdo the violence of his hit Alien.' Later he says, 'only a few scenes are marred by sadistic outbursts' and concludes with 'it doesn't add up to much excuse for the vicious violence.' (1982: 18) It is plain to see that Sterritt's opinion of the film is shaped by a conservative reaction to the representations of violence in the film. In this wider editorial and institutional context, the negative response doesn't seem wholly unexpected. For further proof of the way Christian Science Monitor reviewed Blade Runner, one only has to compare the review to E.T., another Hollywood science fiction film released around the same time. In his closing sentences of his review on E.T., Sterritt has the following to say: 'Add to this the movie's lack of violence and witty visual puns, and you have a summer entertainment that should please nearly everyone.' (1982: 18) Yet again, the issue of violence seems to be a key determinant in Sterritt's overall judgement of a film especially science fiction. Although I have picked out Christian Science Monitor as an example, a closer analysis of the other publications would probably reveal similar editorial biases.

‘Much has been made of the fact that Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner was first released in 1982 within two weeks of E.T. Spielberg’s winsome alien, whose luminous index once hailed every passer-by like some galactic Kitchener, has now been largely forgotten, while a film that looked set to be consigned to the trashcan of sci-fi ephemeral has established itself as a canonical text of 1980s popular culture.’ (Romney, 1992: 33)

Jonathan Romney was responding to the 1992 release of the film as a new director’s cut. Whereas the critical reception to Blade Runner in 1982 can be divided along the lines of populist and academic, a third response emerged over a period of ten years, which was initiated and largely sustained by a fan discourse. The intervention of film preservationist Michael Arick who discovered a 70mm print of Blade Runner, which was a work print version of the film originally screened in Denver in 1982, led to the release of a director’s
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DRAM70121: Screen Research Methodologies Week 1: Seminar Task - Reception Studies

Omar Ahmed September 2012

cut in 1992.1 This new version of the film was met with a much more favourable response, rightfully rescuing the film. In total seven versions of the film have been released and in 2007 Ridley Scott made yet more aesthetic changes to a version titled The Final Cut. The protracted history of the film and the dismissal of the theatrical version have meant it is a film which has been continually in flux, responding to changes in terms of ideological frameworks such as the emergence of postmodernity as a means of analysing science fiction films. In the words of J Hoberman, 'Like Orson Welles Touch of Evil, Blade Runner is even a film without a fixed version.' (1992: 61) This makes the film a very complicated text to study for film scholars and even more problematic for the field of reception studies.

 

Nonetheless, the critical reception greeted by the film in 1982 was prescient in underlining three consensual misgivings about the film, which would later be altered for the 1992 director’s cut. The first aspect concerned the voice over narration, which was criticized by Michael Dempsey as ‘often grotesquely awful in its strainings after Chandlerlike rough diamonds of knight-in-the-sewer wisdom.’ (1982/83: 33) The work print version screened before a preview audience did not feature a voice over narration. It is likely the studio imposed such a change. The second aspect concerning Deckard’s memories and his status as a replicant, which would eventually in 1992 see the inclusion of a crucial unicorn dream sequence, was in fact highlighted when Dempsey discusses the false memories implanted in Rachael, ‘For his own apartment is full of photographs that are “false memories”…Scott does not really develop this memory/photograph theme to its fullest.’ Of course the 1992 inclusion of the unicorn dream does indeed develop this theme of memories and even brings in to doubt the human identity of Deckard. Lastly, and perhaps most pertinently concerned the ending. The 1992 director’s cut offered an ending in which Deckard and Rachael’s future is left open. The happy ending, another change imposed by the studio, was yet again criticised by reviewers in 1982, as it did not fit in with bleak tone of the rest of the film.

What we can conclude is that although the critical reception was largely negative, some of the criticism inadvertently isolated what improvements needed to be made to make the film much stronger. There is a significant disconnect between the way film was received in 1982 and its reputation today. In addition to the cult following Blade Runner attracted over the years, we would also need to consider additional contextual dimensions, which have affected the critical reputation of the film. This may include the rise of postmodern culture, cyberpunk literature and cinema, the reputation of Ridley Scott as an auteur, the soundtrack by composer Vangelis, the influence on the representations of dystopian futures in Hollywood cinema, the work of Philip K Dick, the emergence of future noir as a sub genre, the role of new media technologies in providing the film with new platforms such as DVD, and most importantly, the rise of corporate
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In his definitive book Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner writer Paul M. Sammon catalogues the arduous journey taken by the film to finally cement its place in film history. Page 5 of 6

DRAM70121: Screen Research Methodologies Week 1: Seminar Task - Reception Studies

Omar Ahmed September 2012

power as a defining characteristic of a contemporary capitalist system. In terms of reception studies, the meanings behind Blade Runner will continue to be contested since it is a film text that seems to offer something new in terms of ideological interpretation for differing contexts.

Bibliography

M. Sammon, Paul (1996), Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, Orion Media S. Ozer, Jerome (ed.) (1983) Film Review Annual – 1982, Englewood, 91 – 114 S. Ozer, Jerome (ed.) (1993) Film Review Annual – 1992, Englewood, 127 – 133

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