Blade Runner (1982)
Dir. Ridley Scott
Written by: Hampton Fancher & David Peoples (from the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos
Blade Runner is, without doubt, my favorite film that I have so far reviewed for this project. By now, my affinity for science fiction is probably apparent, and I believe that Blade Runner is the finest modern science fiction film ever made. It carries on the traditions of genre classics, both in its style and in its themes, while also breaking new ground and introducing new tropes that would become staples of the sci-fi film for years to come. The film introduced the trappings of cyberpunk to the screen, and its dystopic vision of a future in which advanced cybernetic technology and artificial intelligence exist alongside the crumbling ruins of a once-proud earthbound 20th century society has informed the style of science fiction ever since. Without Blade Runner there is no Robocop, no Matrix, no Ghost in the Shell. Its importance in the history of the genre can’t be understated, and, to me, it is a perfect film.
The film’s opening title roll succinctly and directly introduces the film’s themes, as well as the future world of 2019 in which it is set:
“Early in the 21st century, the Tyrell Corporation advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase – a being virtually identical to a human – known as a Replicant. The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth – under penalty of death. Special police squads – Blade Runner Units – had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.”
Rick Deckard (Ford) is the titular Blade Runner, who is coerced to take one final assignment before his own retirement. A group of Replicants have escaped from one of the Off-world colonies, murdering over two dozen humans in the process, and Deckard is tasked with finding and retiring them. While tracking Pris (Hannah), Batty (Hauer), and the other Replicants, Deckard meets and falls in love with Rachael (Young), an advanced prototype Replicant who has been implanted with a human’s memories. Deckard’s relationship with Rachael causes him to question the nature of humanity as well as the moral implications of his hunt for the Replicants.
The film’s premise is simple, but its presentation is incredibly complex. Scott packs the frame with visual information, introducing details about this world through a unique and unmistakable aesthetic. The film is unrelentingly dark, borrowing and updating the aesthetic of the noir film. This dark, gray color palette is reflective of the fact that though Blade Runner presents a high-tech future, this is no age of enlightenment. It seems that society has regressed rather than progressed in spite of the strides of science and technology, with all but a few people living in relative squalor, scraping just to get by. The benefits of technology are reserved for the wealthy, like Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) who lives in a penthouse atop the massive Tyrell Building, which houses his corporation and which towers over the slums where most of the film’s action takes place. The shadowy streets below the Tyrell Building are lit up by crisscrossing search lights, and characters’ faces are illuminated by the flashing lights of the omnipresent flying police cruisers, giving the world a paranoid sense of constant surveillance. The only steady sources of light are the glowing neon billboards, advertising products like Coca-Cola and Atari. In the future that Blade Runner imagines, it would seem that traditional nation-states have been abandoned in favor of an overarching corporate hegemony.
Blade Runner is as dense symbolically and textually as it is visually, with Scott drawing on a history of literary and filmic influences to further his film’s themes. One of the most obvious parallels in the film can be drawn from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Arguably one of the first works of science fiction, the tale of man’s quest to play God and create life has its fingerprints all over Blade Runner. All of the Replicants are, in a way, spiritual cousins to the famous Monster. His body, constructed as it was from corpse parts, was a reminder of man’s mortality, just as the Replicants’ built-in four year life span is a constant reminder of the fleeting nature of life on earth. And just like the Monster, the Replicants never asked to be created, but now that they have been given the gift of life, they naturally begin to seek out meaning in their existence. Theirs is a tragic case of an unfortunate being that was given all of the capacities to question their existence, but none of the means to truly enjoy it or make it meaningful. The film also takes several cues from Fritz Lang’s sci-fi classic, Metropolis, which concerns itself with widening class inequality in a seemingly Utopian future. In both its themes and its art design, Blade Runner owes a deep debt of gratitude to the earlier film. These literary and cinematic callbacks help to align Blade Runner in the larger history of science-fiction, and align its themes with the ur-questions that sci-fi has been asking since its inception: “What is Man’s place in the Universe?” “What, if any, is the will of our Creator?” and, ultimately, “What does it mean to be Man?”
These questions are most directly brought up in the character of Roy Batty, leader of the rogue Replicants, and his quest to meet his maker. Religious symbolism is prevalent throughout the film, but the most obvious religious motifs and iconography are associated with the character of Roy Batty. His character is the most fleshed out of all the Replicants, and he seems to be the only one with a concrete goal in mind after their mutiny and escape to Earth. He is on a quest to meet Dr. Tyrell and inquire as to the purpose of his short life. Batty is the prodigal son, returned to his father to be celebrated as a crowning achievement, but he’s also the avenging angel, bringing Tyrell his comeuppance in the form of a swift and brutal death. Later in the film, Scott makes a more direct religious allusion when he has Batty drive a nail through his palm while he is chasing Deckard through the abandoned hotel at the end of the film. The gesture has major significance in the context of the larger scene – Batty uses the nail to stabilize his malfunctioning hand as it becomes apparent that he is shutting down – but when coupled with Batty cradling a dove while he gives his final soliloquy, the symbolic meaning is even more apparent. All of the Replicants, but particularly Batty, are Christ figures. They were created to save humanity from the hardships of labor and war, but most importantly, like Christ, they were created to die. They were also created as an Other, something for their human counterparts to hold up as an example of non-life, non-humanity. However, unlike Christ, their suffering and death is as robbed of meaning and permanence as their short lives. Like Batty says before he dies, all of the wonderful things that he has seen, things that no human will ever experience, will be washed away, “like tears in rain.” If the measure of humanity is one’s capacity to empathize and value the experience and the life of one less fortunate that oneself, then the humans in Blade Runner have failed the test spectacularly.
Of course, it is really the tragic figure of the doomed Replicants that the audience is meant to pity by the film’s end. Their circumstances, being brought into a cruel world that seeks to use them for slave labor and then discard them after four years of life, is naturally pitiable enough, but the performances of the actors portraying the Replicants, particularly Hannah and Hauer, breathe humanity into these robots and give them an emotional depth often unseen in films about androids. Brion James and Joanna Cassidy are both good in their roles as Leon and Zhora, respectively, but these two Replicants aren’t given nearly as much screentime as Pris and Batty. All of the actors play the Replicants with a kind of savagery that’s bubbling just underneath the surface. Hannah plays Pris like a wounded dog in her first appearance in the film. She beds down under some trash outside Tyrell Corporation geneticist, J.F. Sebastian’s (William Sanderson) home. When he discovers her, she’s initially frightened, shying away from his gaze before she reluctantly agrees to come inside and be his friend. Of course this is all a canny set up, a ruse to gain Batty access to Dr. Tyrell, but Pris is convincing enough for the naïve, lonely Sebastian. To this point, it seems that the Replicants are prone to lash out violently when backed into a corner, programmed to focus on short term survival, but when Batty and Pris are reunited at Sebastian’s, they exchange a series of small glances that make the audience aware that this was all a part of their cunning plan.
Eventually Deckard tracks Pris down at the dilapidated hotel that Sebastian has taken over as his home. Pris gets the better of Deckard, getting the drop on him by pretending to be one of Sebastian’s harmless animatronic creations and then showing off her advanced athletic prowess as she does back handsprings across the room, grabbing Deckard in a choke hold with her legs. Rather than killing Deckard, she goes back for another gymnastic run across the room, giving him time to recover. Deckard shoots Pris down and she dies, screaming and writhing on the floor. There’s both a mechanical and an animalistic quality to the way that she twitches on the floor before dying. In one sense, she seems to be malfunctioning, but in another she seems to be a panicked animal, caught in a trap, trying desperately to free itself when it’s already too late. In this brief scene, Pris encapsulates the experience of being a Replicant so well. She lures Deckard in with her cunning, and overpowers him with her superior physicality, but her downfall is her innate desire to show off. She could have easily killed Deckard, but Pris instead opts to give another display of her power and it ultimately costs her her life.
The most advanced Replicant, of course, is Batty. He’s the oldest of the four, only a few months away from the end of his four-year life span, and he has had the most lived experience and learned the most about mankind and what it means to be human. Rutger Hauer is a tour de force in the film’s final scenes, playing Batty as both Id and Ego as he pursues Deckard to the rooftop of the hotel. The hunter has become the hunted, as Batty attempts to give Deckard a taste of the fear that the Replicants must feel every day. Batty, like Pris, displays animalistic qualities, howling and barking after Deckard and running lithely through the crumbling building. This is, of course, only one side of his personality, as he also repeatedly goads Deckard with quips about fairness, competence, and humanity. He seems omnipresent as his voice projects from the walls, crashing through the plaster on occasion to remind Deckard that his pursuer is just on his heels. Batty’s manic pursuit of Deckard is one of the film’s most memorable sequences, with Hauer’s intensely blue eyes and menacing smile popping off the screen. He plays the doomed Replicant with malice, but never lets the audience forget that Batty is a tragic figure.
Batty’s final soliloquy, which Hauer wrote himself on set, gets to the crux of the film’s argument about humanity. In just the four years that he was given to live, Batty has experienced and seen things that no human ever will. He has developed a personality, emotions, and, most importantly, a set of memories that are uniquely his and a bit of life experience from which he can draw. These are the qualities that make Batty a human being, even though he is not designated as such. When he is no more, all of those experiences will be lost. Being granted life, Batty’s desire was to live it, freely, to gain experience and knowledge, but his creators had another plan for him. When Batty saves Deckard from falling off the roof, he passes the ultimate test of his humanity, ironically a test that none of the film’s human characters seems possible of passing. Batty has developed empathy, and by allowing Deckard to live, and explaining to him that the fear that he is feeling at that moment is akin to the fear that the Replicants feel every day of their existence, Batty is passing that lesson on. Before he dies, Batty releases a dove which flies skyward. The camera follows it up and gives the first glimpse of a blue sky beyond the smokestacks and fog of Los Angeles.
I haven’t even touched on so many things that I love about Blade Runner, but to try to fit everything in to one post would be a fool’s errand. I called it a perfect film, and I feel it is that because it’s more than the sum of its parts. It works on both an ethical level and on a strictly narrative level, leaving the audience with questions to ponder about both. The film contains great performances, a fantastic score, a visual aesthetic that helped to influence and define an era of science-fiction filmmaking. It asks heavy philosophical questions and largely lets the audience fill in their own answers. The basic question that viewers of the film tend to ask, namely “Is Deckard a Replicant?”, can be answered by posing another, more important question: “What does it mean to be a human when the most humane characters in the film are the Replicants?” It ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not Deckard is a man or a machine, because in Blade Runner humanity is not strictly defined by the presence or absence of mechanical parts. It’s defined by what the characters do with the life they’re given. It’s defined by their desire for “More life, fucker/father.” It’s defined by a striving to be and do more, to consume experience with a voraciousness and to give meaning to that experience.