Blade Runner (1982)
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
"What is personhood? For me, it was about empathy. That was really important to me, and for me it will always be important because I think that's the solution to our problems, feeling somebody else's pain. To the extent that we can, we succeed... to the extent that we don't, we get divorced. We separate; we have our selfish secrets... "Those [themes] made me love doing this. It gave me purpose and something that was bigger than just my own need to succeed or make a movie or something. I felt that that was being lost through this process that we all went through to get the movie done, the re-writes with Ridley, and then me going, and David [Webb Peoples] coming in... And that's why I was so disaffected from it when I saw those dailies. [I thought] 'This has nothing to do with the heart of the matter!' And then, somehow, the movie comes out and the heart remains! "The magic of it for me -- and I mean kinda literally magic -- I didn't know how those feelings, those thoughts that one has that seem to be diminished by the production and by finally what it was, remained intact, and, in fact, in a way that wasn't a hammer! They're just osmotic and subtle, and they're there somehow to affect subliminally! ... In a collective way, everybody's work is there, as it always is in a film, but in Blade Runner, each part becomes the whole... every aspect addresses itself to that theme that became important to me as I went on writing, I discovered it, and then thought it went... and then saw it still there!" ~ Hampton Fancher, discussing on a Final Cut commentary track the creation of the film
Blade Runner is extolled as the last of the great in-house special effects films, and though it was underappreciated upon its initial release, its resurgence in the home video market has resulted in a well-esteemed legacy. It follows Rick Deckard, a disillusioned law enforcer who is forced by his superiors to hunt a band of Replicants, artificial humanoids created by the mighty Tyrell Corporation for labor purposes on offworld colonies. Four man-made fugitives have illegally landed on Earth, so Deckard sets off to defeat them on a journey that proves to throw assumptions about himself and the world around him into doubt.
Ridley Scott's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's material -- a novel titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which differed greatly from the film version but had most of its core principles intact in the transition -- its craft and storytelling strongly influenced the likes of Brazil, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Dark City, RoboCop, and even other PKD adaptations such as Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, as well as other Blade Runner works such as the 1997 Westwood Interactive PC video game and a 2017 sequel directed by Denis Vellinue. However, for all its cultural impact, the Blade Runner brand has found itself consigned to mostly cult status, denied financial success enjoyed by George Lucas, James Cameron, and several other sci-fi Hollywood directors. This may be due to how the film, for all its scale and passionate following, is a veritable oddity that occasionally ventures into the bizarre; some outlandish moments resemble madcap Albert Pyun's Nemesis more than perfectionist Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Regardless, those who find themselves on the specific wavelength of Blade Runner have much to appreciate.
In a future Los Angeles (of November 2019 as stated by now-archaic title cards) rendered barely recognizable by urban development, metropolitan marvels are infused with futurism, among an astounding number of other components, including but by no means limited to visual expressionism of noir tales & the recontextualized architecture of ancient empires. Collaborating closely with Scott, the late, great cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Altered States, Rolling Thunder, Stop Making Sense) captures the incomparably elaborate set design in such a way that delivers awe-inspiring vistas of the city from above, while keeping the streets tight enough to allow the viewer's imagination to take them beyond the busy frames.
A skilled worldbuilder, Ridley Scott was natural to realize a sprawling universe by Philip K. Dick, a crucial writer in the inception of the cyberpunk genre. As defined by Susan J. Napier, "Cyberpunk is a genre focusing on dystopian futures in which humans struggle in an overpoweringly technological world where the difference between human and machine is increasingly amorphous," and this is realized in the film's aesthetics. To introduce the thematic undercurrents of the setting, it is worth citing at length Aaron Barlow's essay "Real Toads and Imaginary Cities: Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner, and the Contemporary Science Fiction Movie," which in itself amasses quotes from other writers:
"Giuliana Bruno describes the visual component of Blade Runner as ‘pastiche,’ ‘an effacement of key boundaries and separations -- intended as an aesthetic of quotations pushed to the limit,' adding that the ‘postmodern aesthetic of Blade Runner is thus the result of recycling, fusion of levels, discontinuous signifiers, explosion of boundaries and erosion.' Critical is a lack of overt judgementalism: the landscape, environmental deterioration and all, just ‘is’. According to [Scott] Bukatman, part of this can be attributed to Effects Supervisor Douglas Trumbull, whose works ‘reveal an ambivalence toward technology. They are neither celebratory nor condemning.' Not even the Tyrell Corporation can be held responsible for the state of the world; Eldon Tyrell, through the gruesomeness of his death (and his passivity in facing it), becomes as much a victim as anyone. The Earth has been ruined; people are moving off-planet. Blame must be universal, if it is to be assessed at all. Even the victims share in the responsibility. ‘Scott’s hallmark was a visual density that revealed as much as, or more than, the script. The characters inhabited complex worlds that provided oblique contexts for their decisions.' Scott understands quite well a point Brooks Landon makes, that ‘a series of images creates its own logic quite apart from the prose narrative that it conveys.' Just so, Hampton Francher, the first screenwriter on Blade Runner, recalls an incident when ‘Scott suddenly looks at me and says, “Hampton, this world you’ve created – what’s outside the window?”’ For Scott, the story becomes but one of a number of elements, for he understands that the ‘most significant “meanings” of science fiction films are often found in their visual organization.' As Roger Ebert says of Dark City but could have been saying of Blade Runner, ‘it’s almost the keystone of a movie like this, that the effects express what the idea behind the movie is and we’re not simply looking at a sideshow.'"
This composited aesthetic allows elements to be read in a variety of contexts and interpretations. More than mere escapism, the science-fiction aesthetic is in itself a vehicle of themes; as Philip K. Dick himself put it, "Science fiction makes what would otherwise be an intellectual abstraction concrete; it does this by locating the idea in a specific time and place, which requires the inventing of that time and place." The film doesn't so much attempt to predict the future literally -- although some elements such as a newspaper headline about the global linkage of computers are precedent, and production designer Syd Mead's sociology expertise greatly informed worldbuilding by predicting such events as the Asian population boom -- so much as it hosts ideas, inquiries, and explorations. While Ridley Scott (as well as actor Rutger Hauer) have on occasion expressed extreme distrust of the image, to the point of even discrediting their own work as just entertaining fiction, Blade Runner nevertheless invokes philosophical and social issues in a fashion thoughtful and visceral enough to encourage contemplation from the audience.
Aesthetically and textually, Blade Runner is a cornucopia of concepts that is never myopic but avoids seeming disjointed. The city invokes noir, synthesizing existential struggles & ingrained social malaise with the apocalyptic inclination of the science-fiction setting. The mishmash of cultures in the city -- American, Chinese, Japanese, German, Hispanic, etc -- are all highly individualized but seldom inter-sectional. The street is populated by punks & monks & everyone in between. Art design manages to keep these demographics in a coherent setting, but it makes no attempt to hide that all these people have little in common save that they're all mired in material pursuit.
The characters' abodes suggest the sort of hoarding pursuits seen in such inspirations as the hollow mansion of the enigmatic lead of Citizen Kane or the cluttered greenhouse of the ailing rich man in The Big Sleep. Deckard's apartment is a clutter of work equipment, liquor bottles, musical instruments, and dubiously genuine family memorabilia; the brash Chief Bryant's office has plenty of loudspeaker equipment and some proudly displayed photos of safari trophy killings; the abode of the lonely genetic engineer J. F. Sebastian is populated by crowds of his own amicable but simple creations donned in Victorian garb; the very temporary residence of the replicants at a hotel has but a few traces on-site, with their residence being recorded through little more than Leon's photos; and the lording CEO of Tyrell Corp boasts a vast view of his city from his Egyptian-themed quarters. From the advertisement blimps that promise a better existence off-world as their spotlights probe into apartment windows, to the constant rain that attunes itself to the intensity of onscreen conflict and brings to mind the downpour before a flood, the visuals of Blade Runner are artistic, thematic storytelling.
All this attention to detail isn't just dazzling; the details carry implications about the setting and how human nature could allow for such conditions. Invasive, omnipresent advertising serves to imply that the public is spiritually dead in its materialism, becoming complacent in the solidification of a society of the spectacle. In his heavier and lighter films alike, Ridley Scott often explores themes of sight and spectatorship, from the rulers in Gladiator using bread-and-circuses as political action to the grifters in Matchstick Men reveling in & misdirecting with the dramatic. The very first shots of Blade Runner are a grand sight of the beauty of the city, as well as a non-diagetic image of an "all-seeing eye," which Scott in the director's commentary of the Final Cut version describes as "Orwellian."
While he prioritizes the film as engaging entertainment over making it a sermon about "apartheid and all that nonsense," Scott does go on to elaborate that the setting is owned by a handful of large corporations, opining that "Whether it's about [industrial] imperialism or communism, they are really fundamentally one and the same, I think. The end result is the same." There is definitely a class divide in this LA; the gritty streets are often contrasted with the pristine high-rises, and Deckard is forced back on the job for fear of being reduced to the status of "little people." Yet what blame the film directs isn't received by only the elite, but also the masses who accommodate degeneracy, subjugation, deracination, and other evils of their dystopia in exchange for comfortable numbness. It isn't a dark future as far survival is concerned -- though ecology & biological integrity do seem to be endangered -- so much as essential human dignity has been eroded.
Opposing this nihilism, the film is a journey of characters trying to see beyond the spectacle and hollowness of their existence. Contrary to the action-oriented marketing of the film, it is ultimately, as Scott puts it, about "a journey of absolute self-discovery," but not for Rick Deckard alone.
For example, self-doubting experiment Rachel is at least as needing a foundation for identity. An unconventional treatment of what could have been merely a femme-fatale archetype makes her a contentious but fascinating character, as well. In an unforgettably beautiful scene, she is introduced in a fashion befitting a beautiful "ice queen" or "black widow" sort. She holds an almost plastically perfect poise when first encountering Deckard, immediately following up her curt affirmation of the high value of Tyrell's artificial owl with a self-introduction that implies similar exoticism. She's high class & knows it.
However, Deckard's dismissal of the "fake" owl proves to be a bad omen; Rachel's initial confidence is shaken when her master Tyrell has her subjected to Deckard's replicant-detecting Voight-Kamphf Empathy Test, which exposes the emotional distress caused by the replicants' lack of a tangible past and origin. Despite challenging some of the VK's most probing queries by reflecting Deckard's intrusiveness back at him, she is noticeably unsettled by the end of the test as she is ushered out by Tyrell so that the others may further objectify her -- "an experiment, nothing more." Her seeking assurance from Deckard later proves only to further dishearten as he reveals her memories to be fabrications duplicated from the actual experiences of Tyrell's niece. Deckard's subsequent attempt to undo the emotional damage is feeble & dubiously sincere, so Rachel leaves him to contemplate why he didn't care enough to be concerned in the first place. The grizzled loner's invitation to a seedy bar isn't worth following up on. However, Rachel isn't antagonistic; she actually saves Deckard by making the tough call of killing one of her own kind when Leon attacks him, a slaying that leaves her shaken & further uncertain about herself.
Her trauma is met by the film's most controversial scene. After killing a fellow replicant to save the blade runner, Rachel's second visit to Deckard's apartment starts off tenderly; Deckard acknowledges Rachel's distress and debates whether or not to carry out the kill on this innocent quarry. As he rests from his injuries, Rachel recalls her implanted memories of piano lessons; as she plays the instrument and wonders if the skill is hers or that of Tyrell's niece, Deckard reassures, "You play beautifully." The warm soundtrack swells, but then sours; Deckard makes an ill-advised advance for a kiss, but according to Scott: "[Rachel is] frightened of feeling that relationship occur. She doesn't understand the feeling inside her which is making her like this man." She starts to leave but Deckard slams the door shut, pushes her away, and continues to seduce her, prompting her to respond in kind as the scene ends. It is commonly agreed upon by even the filmmakers that production stress hindered the scene's warmth, but if anything the end result is an unflinching look at sexual reality; Rachel loves Deckard for being masculine, for being assertively dominant while understanding what she thinks and needs even better than she does, for getting his act together after his earlier lack of social calibration.
Furthermore, film scholar Deborah Jermyn advocates a female-empathetic reading of the film in her formidable essay "The Rachel Papers: In Search of Blade Runner's Femme Fatale." Jermyn considers the film a true-to-life depiction of the messy nature of human emotion. Deckard is socially clumsy, and one can perhaps read his frustrated expressions and the music spikes as the realization that his ungainliness is potentially ruining a fleeting chance for companionship. Vitally, Rachel's character, on a journey of uncertainty and self-realization of her own, is presented as possessing that essential for-better-and-for-worse trait of all outstanding women: a nigh-predatory capability of being aware of and painfully exposing the flaws of others. She isn't certain what to think of herself, due to her programmed memories and designed naivete. But self-dissatisfaction never stopped a woman from firing barbs at others. Rachael delivers two of the film's most potent queries at Deckard -- "Have you ever retired a human by mistake?" & "You know that Voigt-Kampff test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?" -- emotionally articulating an exploration into human nature, and she acts as an important impetus for Deckard to recover his empathy & masculine identity so as to guide her way in turn.
Other female characters meet fates less fortunate than even Rachel's ambiguous path. The world-weary replicant Zhora performs at a strip club, presumably out of desperation to provide for herself and her friends; when Deckard feebly actsas an inspector from the "Confidential Committee on Moral Abuses" asking if she has been "exploited in any way," pretending to check her dressing room for peepholes as if that'd be any big deal considering her obvious exposure onstage, her exasperated knowingness implies a history of tragic encounters with men with "lewd or unsavory" interests. Before Zhora escapes, she changes into leather gear difficult to distinguish as a stage costume or "normal clothes," blurring the line between performance/personal spaces. In any case, she does her best to elude Deckard but is brutally shot in the back. As Jermyn's essay continues, "what remains most memorable about Zhora is not her stage performance where ‘she takes the pleasure from the serpent’ – a spectacle we hear but are not shown, despite the MC’s invitation to ‘watch her.’ Rather it is her will to live as she keeps running through one pane of glass after another." As one of Vangelis' most poignant songs empowers the horror of the scene, Zhora's bloodied form falls among broken glass, neon strobes, fake snow, and cosmetic mannequins.
The juxtaposition of manufactured Zhora's desperate will to live with the guady environs is emblematic of a struggle to exist within image-defined roles. Characters beneath authority positions struggle to define themselves as autonomous individuals beyond what their images can accommodate. Before her self-discovery, Rachel's image is of an unreal, manufactured polish, with cold conduction & runway walk. Pris, the "basic pleasure model," is one of the most spontaneous of the cast yet adopts fake vulnerability in order to surprise her prey. These representations are contextualized the characters' refusals to submit quietly to fate, desperately struggling to preserve their lives. Through this, Scott reproduces a sort of objectifying camera-eye that captures the cast in iconic/erotic fashion, all the while exploring, undermining, and questioning this aesthetic method of categorization.
The common problem faced by all the characters is how to escape the positions in life they've been trapped in. In addition to the female replicants being objectified to some degree or another, Deckard himself is actually objectified as well, particularly by Officer Bryant, who constantly patronizes and forces Deckard to do his violent bidding, ignoring the man's obvious emotional exhaustion & expecting him to stoically suck it up & do "a man's job." No need to regard the emotional state of a mere "one-man slaughterhouse," after all; a few shots of liquor should cover the bases. Deckard has doubtlessly worked hard to be (barely) more than "little people," but retaining this seems more painful than it's worth. He is aware of his objectification and mistreatment, bottling him with frustration. Only after all his traumatizing encounters with the replicants does he emerges with new resolve, for while he initially dismisses their humanity, he finds that there is much to learn from their similar existential predicaments, as well, and he values his fragile mortality after brushes with death.
Contrasting the confused protagonist is the assured yet no less burdened Roy Batty. He leads the band of replicants who feel that, since they are designed with a short four-year lifespan intended to keep them from fully maturing a sense of agency, their biological conditions and social caste rob them of reaching their true potential. Roy has the cool demeanor of one who's seen a thing or two in combat, yet has the wild-eyed impulse of one desperate for a longer life than the highly specific (and brutal) role that's been assigned to him since birth. As one of the band says, "Nothing's worse than an itch you can't scratch." For them, such limited potential is synonymous with slavery, a life in fear. Excepting perhaps the jaded Zhora, the four outlaw replicants are all oddly childlike, even in their disregard for human life.
The thuggish yet simple-minded Leon is the first replicant to be introduced; being asked questions pertaining to a past he doesn't have, he cracks from interrogation by condescending blade runner Holden. Apparent is the irony that the ostensively inhuman one emotionally reacts whereas the human coldly fakes friendliness. Stranger still are the Freudian undertones as Leon, when asked to recount positive things about his mother, sneers "I'll tell you about my mother" and shoots a pistol from underneath the table. As the limited amount of experience permitted by four-year lifespans prevents them from mental maturation, Leon and the other replicants fail to recognize the value of the lives of anyone outside of their own personal circles. Of course, another piercing irony of the story is that almost no one, human or replicant, cares for others outside of their own intimate experience, regardless.
An exception is the well-meaning J.F. Sebastian. A young genetic engineer with a DNA defect that accelerates his aging process, J.F. is like the replicants in that he looks much older than he really is; along with several other genetic engineers including Tyrell himself, he contributes DNA to replicant creation, with his own resulting in their limited lifespans. Still, he is a kind soul who lets outlaw Pris into his home, thinking she is a homeless vagrant as in need of friends as he is. The only inhabitant of the abandoned Bradbury Hotel, Sebastian has animated Victorian, toylike bioforms for company, but they lack intelligence. He's the classic niceguy who never stood a chance of just passing by when pretty replicant Pris arranges for him to "find" her shivering in the cold; Sebastian is too kind to not give this vagrant shelter. Of course, Pris is there to get intel, and shifts her affections wholly to Roy when he comes along. The two replicants' obsession with each other marginalizes their lonely host, although Sebastian is grateful to have anyone witty and spontaneous to converse with. Disregarding fears of being too vulnerable to these strangers in need, Sebastian introduces the replicants to Tyrell in the hopes of saving them.
Roy's meeting with Tyrell is unfortunate but revelatory. They meet the aloof ruler in his pyramid by defeating him at his chess game, and Roy bargains with his "father" for more life. Tyrell diplomatically details that the limited lifespan is actually an unintentional side-effect of a component necessary to make Roy's model functional. Roy begins to think that his friends have died in vain, and his own death is inevitable and imminent. He starts to feel remorse for his murders, and Tyrell attempts to console him: "The light that burns half as long burns twice as bright, and you have shined so very brightly, Roy. Revel in your time." However, this doesn't satisfy; perhaps Tyrell, despite designing the replicants' brains, is unable to fully appreciate their thoughts just as the designer of their eyes cannot see what they have, or maybe Roy is simply not ready to face up to difficult reality. In any case, Roy brutally kills his creator, gouging his eyes, but this seems to yield no catharsis; neither does his wanton murder of the guiltless Sebastian immediately after. Roy's starlight-bathed descent by elevator from the scene shows him in a confined space within a vast universe: a fallen angel about to die, despite his struggles.
Roy's intended quest is an utter failure, leaving him to wonder in distress what he should do with his final few hours. Pris has been slain at the hands of a horrified Deckard before Roy even has a chance to say goodbye. However, the series of hardships Roy has been subjected to ignite an epiphany; coming to terms with the fact that he, as all other living beings, will always be incomplete and imperfect, Roy sheds his malice & opts to use his dying moments to unleash his emotions, revel in his time, and teach by fright his pursuer Deckard to value life. Adopting animal-like behavior, playing berserk mind games with his hapless quarry, inflicting pain upon himself to stimulate action for a precious few more minutes, and making as much of a memorable show of himself as possible, the replicant proves the stronger warrior and not only spares Deckard's life but also saves it, despite that hunter-turned-prey being responsible for the deaths of his fellows & spitting in his face. Trusting his bizarre yet benign impulses, Roy lifts Deckard out of the chasm, the dying replicant telling him of the wonderful things he's beheld in his short yet remarkable life. His dying words paint a beautiful mental picture while acknowledging that ultimately the experiences themselves can be only intimated. But even this mediated retelling has a profound effect on the spared Deckard & given Roy a sort of legacy to leave behind. Despite not understanding all that has happened in his tumultuous existence, Roy is at peace.
This elevation, in turn, sparks a similar epiphany in Deckard. By the act of seeing, he has finally gained enough understanding of the other to become significantly more empathetic. Upon Roy's passing, Deckard is immediately put to the test by the reappearance of Gaff, who complements him for doing "a man's job" while refuting Deckard's statement of completion by reminding him that Rachel is still to be killed. Gaff departs, ambiguously lamenting "It's too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?" Something like that could be said of everyone, and Deckard also realizes that Rachel's life, however brief, is worth preserving, even at his own expense. He dedicates himself to spending the rest of his life with her, despite the world against them.
Of course, the ending infamously asks if Deckard himself is a replicant. Circumstantial evidence appears throughout the film, but the most potent factor is a correlation between two scenes. In every version of the scene where Deckard is about to enter the elevator with Rachel, he discovers a unicorn origami of Gaff's, indicating that the blade runner is actually a kindred soul who spared her life. Added in later cuts is a scene earlier in the film where Deckard plays piano and imagines a unicorn. Also describing the creature as a symbol of goodness -- unicorns also symbolize truth & can be tamed by only virgins -- Ridley Scott suggests that Deckard is a replicant & that Gaff is aware of his status and memories, opting to spare him but alert him of his status and the mercy shown him. There are arguments against this, such as that most of the other crew disagree on this interpretation, so the truth is uncertain. If Deckard is a human, the story is about his trials in regaining his core humanity and caring for an other; if a replicant, the story is about him realizing his true nature as an other & caring for a kindred spirit. Both seem similar; the sequel suggests an element of determinism (that they were designed to love each other) for the latter in particular, but that is uncertain and could be considered a factor in either reading. Assuming the replicants have souls, free will, intelligence, consciousness, whatever is needed to have human essence -- and this does seem to be asserted -- than perhaps it either reading still confirms Blade Runner as "a journey of absolute self-discovery" back into the region of morality, an affirmation that you may be imperfect, mortal, powerless, trapped, oppressed, alone, even doomed, but you're never without value if you're willing to do whatever it takes to manifest it. At the time of this writing, it's been over 35 years since Blade Runner's initial release. Philip K. Dick never got to see the finished re-imagining of his work, but a late interview did show him starting to find great promise in Ridley's film: "I did not know that a work of mine or a set of ideas of mine could be escalated into such stunning dimensions. My life and creative work are justified and completed by Blade Runner. Thank you... it is going to be one hell of a commercial success. It will prove invincible." Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case, as it lost big-time to heavier hitters at the box office, such as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. This was a sad fate for this labor of love, a project whose production would have been an unmitigated disaster in less passionate hands. The reception was not the wide acclaim and standing ovations the film deserved; just like any human lifespan, it wasn't enough to be fair. Despite this, the film has indeed established itself as a staple of the genre and a vital turning point for large-scale film productions in general. This has been well-documented in documentaries such as Dangerous Days and On the Edge of Blade Runner which intimately detail how miraculous it was that the film ever came to be at all.
Yet for all the praise and imitation in its wake, Blade Runner still remains an oddity of a film, with attempts to continue the series being met with mixed results, at best (save perhaps for the excellent 1997 adventure game). Many of its filmmakers have been met with misfortune, as well, with essential production designer Lawrence G. Paull and the ineffable actor Rutger Hauer passing away in 2019. Other creators have appeared on and off the map: the powerfully practical co-screenwriter David Webb Peoples got a few big gigs including Terry Gilliam's mind-bending Twelve Monkeys, Clint Eastwood's award-winning Unforgiven, and a film of his own direction in The Blood of Heroes. Soulful co-writer Hampton Fancher has mostly stuck to producing, with exceptions including writing Blade Runner 2049 & a film of his own, The Minus Man. Ridley Scott has continued to make great works over the decades and finance many more projects, but few have gotten the success or respect they deserve, and he has experienced such tragedies as the loss of his wondrous brother and fellow director Tony Scott earlier this decade; with Ridley in his eighties, it's inevitable that the world will soon lose another great artist in him, as well. However, there is still hope to be found in all this. Blade Runner and the passionate filmmakers who made it have already made their mark on history as it is. Considering all that's become of their work in the past, from inspiring other great works to the effect on the viewers of Blade Runner itself directly, it is beyond doubt that these artists will continue to live on in the future, in one way or another.
Originally reviewed on Letterboxd on November 19, 2019.