Few movies have influenced the science fiction genre like Blade Runner. And yet, somehow, I feel like everyone remembers the film differently. With seven versions of the film released to date, it’s hard to say which cut of the film is the definitive Blade Runner. As a result, audiences not only misinterpret the meaning of the film, they also misunderstand the impact the film had on cinema.
With the release of Blade Runner 2049 last weekend, I think now is a good time to do a retrospective on the 1982 cult classic. By peering into yesterday’s tomorrow, perhaps we can get a better understanding of today.
Blade Runner takes place in 2019 Los Angeles, where humanoid robots called replicants are manufactured and used as slaves. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a “blade runner,” an ex-cop tasked with killing runaway replicants. When a group of replicants, led by the fierce Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), flee an off-world colony in search of an extension on their four-year lifespan, Deckard is forced to “retire” them.
Replicants are ostensibly identical to human beings. They are, as Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) famously claims, “More human than human.” But if their entire purpose is slave labour, then what’s the point in giving them intelligence, emotions and memories? Wouldn’t that inevitably lead to a replicant rebellion?
I’ve always felt that the replicants worked better as a thought experiment than as a plot device. What if we had the technology to create sentient beings? If they became indistinguishable from human beings, then how does that affect our ontology? What defines us as human? Blade Runner takes these philosophical questions and wraps a filthy urban dystopia around it, one polluted with industry, poverty and loneliness.
Atmosphere makes up a large part of the Blade Runner experience. Starting out as a production designer, director Ridley Scott is known for his beautiful sets and elaborate miniatures. Paired with a dreamy score by Greek composer Vangelis, Blade Runner really leaves a lasting impression. The film is Scott at his most inspired, and is still a sight to behold today.
But for all its imaginative visual design, Blade Runner is still a generic film noir. A private eye investigates the seedy underworld and encounters danger. All the tropes are there: an alcoholic protagonist, a wealthy industrialist, a corrupt police chief, and, most notably, a femme fatale in Rachael (Sean Young).
This is not a bad quality in itself, but the noir story is just so lifeless. Like the replicants themselves, I think the story works as a philosophical exercise, but doesn’t click in terms of emotional catharsis. Most of this can be attributed to the relationship between Deckard and Rachael. Their story arc starts off strong, as Deckard reveals to Rachael that she is a replicant, and subsequently regrets it. But their eventual bond carries no affection. There is no indication that these two loners find any solace in one another.
One can argue that their robotic romance is supposed to highlight the ambiguity behind Deckard’s humanity. Is our protagonist a human or a replicant? But I think this flies in the face of the movie’s core message: the mere act of existence is proof alone of one’s humanity. Roy Batty captures this perfectly, as he dies reminiscing over the wonders he has witnessed in his life. Even though Roy is unable to overcome his own ontological limitations, his choice to save Deckard’s life reflects his belief that existence is worth protecting.
But this message gets obfuscated by subsequent reiterations of the same movie. Aside from a few minor changes and the removal of narration, the biggest changes in later cuts of Blade Runner include an additional dream scene and a different ending. These inclusions, along with statements from Scott himself, seem to suggest that Deckard is a replicant. But doesn’t that render Deckard’s quest for identity meaningless? Why are we even watching this movie if Deckard is limited to the same circumstances as any other replicant?
It is here that Ridley Scott fails to understand the purpose of his own movie. The film’s final question contradicts the central theme of the plot (something I like to call the “Inception Paradox”). Is Deckard a human or a replicant? Wait, who cares? The entire point of Blade Runner is to establish the ethereal nature of humanity. We can’t prove that we are ever truly real. But even if we aren’t human, what difference does it make?
As Gaff says to Deckard in the end, “It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?”
In my opinion, Blade Runner is Ridley Scott’s accidental masterpiece. The film succeeds because of him, and also in spite of him. Between its deadpan writing, some unnecessary implications and an irrelevant title based on an unrelated novel, Blade Runner is like a funny game of Mad Libs. It leaves the audience to fill in the blanks with their own answers, increasing intrigue at the cost of thematic cohesion.
I should say, however, that I like Blade Runner, especially for its ambition. Before Blade Runner, sci-fi movies were either blatant cautionary tales (like Them! and The Day the Earth Stood Still) or inflated space operas (like Forbidden Planet and Star Wars). But along with Alien, Blade Runner morphed the sci-fi genre into something intelligent and profound. And even now, Ridley Scott continues to reinvent the genre with movies like The Martian and Alien: Covenant.
Blade Runner might not be perfect, but through its flaws and quirks, it is undeniably human.