What Blade Runner Means to Us
I don’t even remember when or where I first saw Blade Runner, but I remember distinctly the moment it laid hold of me. It’s Los Angeles, 2019. Some kind of flying car zooms over a city that seems endless, with flames bursting into the sky. A massive, ziggurat-like skyscraper looms into view… Yeah, that’s the opening scene. It had me right then, with the Vangelis soundtrack lending it all an odd, almost casual feel. Just another day in the future, where replicants hate being asked about turtles on their backs and broken detectives eat noodles in the neon, neo-noir night. Where genetic engineers make living toys and super soldiers question their planned obsolescence. It didn’t pander, it didn’t explain, it raised all sorts of uncomfortable questions about what it means to be human and it made me wish the bad guy hadn’t died. It was the greatest science-fiction movie I’d ever seen. It may still be. Pardon me – I think I have to go watch this again.
–Bob Cram Jr
When I think of science fiction, I think of Blade Runner. If I think of artificial intelligence, I think of Blade Runner. It’s that influential for me. That wasn’t always the case. There have been many cuts and versions released throughout the years and, even though I was always a fan, it wasn’t until The Final Cut released in 2007 that I really fell head over heels in love. An atmospheric noir detective story with memorable characters and stunning visuals. Yet it was the deeper questions and areas that the film covered, about artificial intelligence and defining what is or isn’t human, that really set it apart. It’s one of those movies that really makes you think. Not necessarily about the plot, but the wider themes and questions it asks. Of course, the icing on the cake is Roy Batty’s improvised dying monologue, which has to go down as one of the greatest of all time.
I had the opportunity to see Blade Runner on the big screen a few years ago. I’d seen the cult favorite more times than I can count, but this was my first time to see it on the big screen. I generally don’t like ranking films, but Blade Runner would easily make my top three. I was only 6 years old when it was theatrically released, and though my dad was a big fan of the film and it was on a lot at home, I didn’t really get interested in it until I was in my late teens.
That was the 90s, and the 90s were a good time for Blade Runner.
The movie bombed when it hit theaters in 1982, but the cult following the film had built over the decade since its release and the release of the so-called Director’s Cut in 1992 reignited interest in it, leading many critics to reexamine–and reappraise–the film. It is now widely thought to be one of the most important science fiction films ever made.
Needless to say, I was excited for the chance to finally see this masterpiece in the theater–where it was meant to be seen. Here are some impressions and takeaways from this chance viewing.
I saw the film at an Alamo Drafthouse. Someone from Birth.Movies.Death introduced the film. We were to be shown the Final Cut, and while our host was spitting factoids that were old news to me, I sat there trying to recall if I’d seen this cut before. I’m still not positive (I own it), but I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d seen this particular edit of the film. Anyway, as much as I love this movie, I try not to get bogged down in the different cuts of the movie.
When the first bass drum strike from Vangelis’s score sounded in the dark, I was biting into a burger. I looked up in time to see “Jerry Perenchio and Bud Yorkin Present” followed by “Harrison Ford” in white, block letters and then the title card, Blade Runner, in contrasting, blood-red letters. I knew what was coming, so I put the burger down and sat back in my seat. The guy munching on the pizza next to me did the same. It might have been my imagination, but I swear you could feel the audience anticipating that first shot. And when it came, though I’ve seen it many times before on the small screen, I was struck dumb by it.
Blade Runner opens on a shot of what Douglas Trumbull and his FX crew affectionately called “Hades”. Future Los Angeles rolls away from cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s camera like oil refineries stacked a thousand deep. Flare stacks explode in the foreground as flying cars (spinners, in the film) flit past. It’s bleak. It’s terrifying. And, somehow, it’s incredibly beautiful.
As the camera slowly moves across this hellscape, two pyramids appear on the ashy horizon. The thing that struck me most about this series of shots is how real it all looks. I’ve seen the behind the scenes footage. I know how these shots were created and how Hades was built. I know they’re miniatures. And, yet, I couldn’t help but compare what I was seeing with more modern films that employ CGI in place of practical effects to achieve the same thing. It’s not as convincing to me. Your mileage may vary. At any rate, after this opening salvo, I had a difficult time paying attention to the plot and, for the most part, just sat there, stunned, letting these incredible images wash over me.
For better or worse, a film like Blade Runner gets watched and re-evaluated enough that elements that might have been initially overlooked eventually get the attention they deserve. Plenty of ink has been spilled over Harrison Ford’s performance, and Rutger Hauer’s mostly improvised “Tears in rain” soliloquy has been praised and discussed to death. I’ve even seen Edward James Olmos’s turn as the post-ethnic Gaff analyzed and commended a good deal online, but the performance that stuck out for me was M. Emmet Walsh’s as Bryant, the captain of the titular Blade Runner unit. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Walsh’s performance that feels like it’s from another time, another film. Maybe a 40s noir. Since Blade Runner is itself a modern noir, maybe that’s what Walsh was going for. I honestly don’t know. Whether it’s pastiche he was going for or something else entirely, I found myself mesmerized by his quirky portrayal of the less-than-ethical Bryant. The look he gives Ford’s Deckard when Deckard questions the efficacy of the Voight-Kampff test (the in-universe polygraph-like machine that is supposed to be able to tell replicant from human) haunted me long after the credits rolled.
Deckard isn’t very good at his job. This is not exactly a little-known fact. One of the most often cited counterarguments to Ridley Scott’s insistence that Deckard is a replicant is that Deckard spends the entire film getting his ass kicked by all of the actual replicants in the movie. Bryant forces him out of retirement because the last blade runner he sent wasn’t good enough. “I need the old blade runner” Bryant says, with a gleam in his eye. “I need your magic.” But what magic? I mean, Deckard does what little detecting there is to do pretty well I guess, but I don’t know if I would call it magic. Not much is made of Deckard’s attempts to track down the replicants. They just sort of fall into his lap. The film’s lack of plot in this regard has been a pretty common criticism in recent years. So if his “magic” isn’t in his detecting abilities, one might conclude that he must be a pretty bad motherfucker. I mean, he’s going toe to toe with androids, some of which have been designed as combat models. You would think he could hold his own against the baddest of the bad. You know, “magic” and all.
But he actually only manages to “retire” two female replicants.
Now, one might say that they’re genetically engineered organisms, so their physical abilities are not constrained by normal human biological constraints. And while I agree with the in-universe logic in this argument, I can’t help but consider the point the film is trying to make by having our hero shoot one female replicant in the back as she flees from him and then only narrowly escape death at the hands of Daryl Hannah’s “pleasure model”. Deckard fails to retire both of the male replicants, Leon and Roy, surviving his encounter with the former only because Rachel (another replicant) is there to save his ass. He is then spared by the superior Batty at the climax of the film.
I’ve seen the movie many times, and I am well-aware that Deckard isn’t a typical hero figure in the film, but seeing his deeds on the big screen somehow exaggerated their grossness and left me pondering, all over again, the film’s question about humanity.
I talked a bit about the cinematography, but one of my favorite facets of the film is the score by Vangelis. There’s not a lot I can say about this that couldn’t be better illustrated by listening to it on your own. Preferably with a good set of headphones in a dark room. But I will say this: as amazing as Vangelis’s synth-heavy score is on its own, it is even better in a theater with good sound. There are films that can not be separated from their soundtracks, but Vangelis’s music feels like it somehow anticipated Ridley Scott’s film. Like it was tucked away somewhere waiting to be found and paired with the appropriate images. I felt lucky to have heard it the way it was meant to be heard.
Deckard a Replicant?
This is one of those things that nerds love to debate. Is Deckard a replicant or not? The short answer is: it’s complicated. The long answer is…complicated.
Blade Runner had two writers. Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. One of Peoples’ drafts employed a voiceover at the end of the film where Deckard muses about his own humanity.
“I wonder who designs the ones like me…and what choices we really have, and which ones we just think we have. I wondered if I had really loved her. I wondered which of my memories were real and which belonged to someone else. The great Tyrell hadn’t designed me, but whoever had hadn’t done so much better. ‘You’re programmed, too,’ she told me, and she was right. In my own modest way, I was a combat model. Roy Batty was my late brother.”
According to Peoples, he meant for this voiceover to be metaphysical in nature. The maker Deckard referenced wasn’t Tyrell. It was God. And Deckard was supposed to be questioning what made him different from the replicants.
Ridley Scott seems to have misunderstood Peoples’ intentions and thought that Deckard as a replicant was a brilliant idea. A very Heavy Metal idea. So he ran with it.
Initially, it was only hinted at. Deckard is seen at one point, just out of focus, with glowing eyes. A special effect used elsewhere in the film to visually mark which characters were replicants. But that’s where the filmmaker left it. As time went on, though, Scott became more insistent that Deckard was a replicant, eventually changing the film to make it less ambiguous. In interviews, Scott seems downright hostile to other interpretations of the film, and he eventually began to state outright that Deckard is a replicant. His word was final, it seemed.
But it’s not really.
Ridley Scott is basically the only person involved with the film that thinks Deckard is a replicant. Hampton Fancher, the original screenwriter on Blade Runner thinks the question of Deckard’s humanity is interesting but that the answer is stupid. Michael Deely, the film’s producer, thought it was “just a bit of bullshit”, and Harrison Ford famously rejected the idea. Denis Villeneuve said in interviews for Blade Runner 2049 that Scott and Ford were still debating the notion of Deckard as a replicant even as the sequel was being made.
Whether Deckard is or isn’t a replicant depends upon a couple of things: what cut of the movie you watch and what you personally believe. The Director’s and Final Cut make it harder to ignore what was left largely ambiguous in previous cuts. Fortunately, though, even those cuts of the film refrain from spelling it out for the viewer. (But let’s not give Ridley Scott any ideas, right?) But even if you believe in authorial intent, Scott didn’t write Blade Runner. Two screenwriters worked on the film, and neither of them agree with Scott’s point of view on the matter. and neither does Dick’s original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
So it comes down to what enriches the film for you. If it’s thinking of Ford’s character as a replicant, then so be it. If not, more power to you.
Blade Runner is set in Los Angeles in November 2019. That’s nearly two years into our rearview mirror now. And while we may not have flying cars, acid rain, or killer androids, Blade Runner still has a few things to say nearly 40 years after its theatrical release.
If you spend any time on social media, you can’t help but notice how contentious the atmosphere is. People are divided. Family and friends argue about politics. Strangers verbally attack one another in the comments of articles posted to Facebook. And Twitter? Twitter is a kind of modern day blood sport. There’s a sort of dehumanization taking place online, and it threatens to spill out into the real world. And all of this may be being strongly influenced by an algorithm designed to give us more of what it thinks we like. (Does this make Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey analogs for Eldon Tyrell?)
Writer Hampton Fancher said he wanted people to take their own empathy test. “Constantly monitor your own emotional temperature. See how human you really are, because we can always be better at being human.”
From that perspective, Blade Runner in 2021 is probably more relevant than it ever has been.
What are your thoughts on Blade Runner? Share them in the comments below!