Monday, September 7, 2009

Blade Runner (1982)


Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: David Peoples
Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, and Rutger Hauer

Images from the 2007 Warner Home Video 4-disc Collector's Edition.

Films are very much products of their time, whether unconsciously echoing that era’s beliefs or values, or actively rejecting those customs. The 80s, rife with morbid, self-centered materialism saw many films revel in that excess, although the decade also gave birth to the likes of Blue Velvet, Videodrome, Brazil, Time Bandits, and Blade Runner; films that openly defied bureaucratic, consumerist, and suburban values. Of these, perhaps none has held up a more serious lens to its subject than Blade Runner. The rest are all, to varying degrees, mired in dark, dark satire. Blade Runner, by comparison, is coldly melancholy, with its noir roots asking us what defines humanity while incisively examining rampant capitalism. With the 2007 Final Cut, Ridley Scott lent to the film an even darker, less certain prospect by the end, which is a fitting reaction to materialism that only seems to have grown since the 80s.     

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The glow of a Coca-Cola advertisement hovers over a futuristic L.A., divided into sleek skyscrapers and a crumbling underbelly. The city seems to be growing in on itself, threatening to collapse under its own weight. The capitalist mentality is rooted in the idea that we are better off with what’s being shoved into our eyes. Today, everything has a sponsor. Sports, television, and even film are no longer havens from the proliferation of product placement. Michael Bay, notorious for his own morbid product mongering, deserves a little credit for recognizing the aesthetic that goes into a commercial, even if his films lack any sizable merit. Billboards in Blade Runner rise above the tangled urban sprawl like beacons, enticing with promises of better, cleaner worlds. The film focuses on the dregs of its futuristic society, unconcerned with those privileged that migrate to new homes. The great unwashed get thrown in the garbage pile along with, ironically, the leftovers from yesterday’s consumerist orgy. 2008’s Wall-E would attempt a successful (if dramatically uneven) indictment of capitalism just as Blade Runner did.   

The world of Blade Runner is divided into the backwater alleys of societal dregs and the metropolitan elite (Tyrell) hovering, like the billboards, as gods ruling the rest from their unfathomably colossal monoliths. We live in a world of manufactured excess. All around us, with a few exceptions, are items that have undergone some production process, or at the very least, have had a price tag attached to them. We are ruled by capitalism, and those precious few things that we once thought were unsellable are worming their way into the global market. This is not to say everything has gone downhill. Slavery is no longer what it once was, but there is still class division that suffuses us with prejudice, and there are horror stories of modern day sex slave markets. So whatever progress we make feels like taking one step forward and a half step back. Blade Runner blurs this line even further by having mankind attempt to systematically terminate the humanity that their slave Replicants have come to evolve to.  

Science fiction has a perpetual fascination with what defines humanity that is rooted in reductionism. The idea of an artificial, man-made being that evolves to increasingly human characteristics is such a provocative one that the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica borrows from, and eventually elaborates upon, the core concept that Blade Runner puts forth. If we can essentially manufacture ethos; that is, forge an identity a la Frankenstein in the laboratory using tangible ingredients, then what makes us human?   

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Blade Runner takes this a step further. Mankind is easily frightened by things that we don’t understand or that threaten our identity. We know our existence, as Descartes (and Pris) said: “I think, therefore I am.” We can’t offer explanations as to why we exist or why we’re human but it is like some unquestionable axiom. That’s just the way it is. With Blade Runner, we are presented with Replicants that begin developing their own emotions. This scares us. It’s okay that they are physically stronger than us because we built them that way. But emotions (and I mean complex ones rather than simply fear, or hunger, or lust) are something we identify with, and having our own creations asserting their individuality is something that mankind cannot accept. We have no way of knowing if it’s simply excellent software, but that doesn’t prevent us from empathizing. Rachael is different among Replicants because in addition to emotions, she has memories with which to anchor them. Deckard ultimately accepts her as a conscience being with real emotions. He could or could not be a Replicant. For me, it is more philosophically interesting if he’s a human. Calling him a Replicant seems to simplify, or at least rationalize, Deckard and Rachael’s love, whereas a human-Replicant relation suggests deeper, more ambiguous complexities to our emotions.   

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What Blade Runner posits by mixing the division between human and Replicant identity leads to an interesting exercise in empathy as we observe humans during the film. The common observation/complaint I hear about the movie is that the characters are difficult to sympathize with. To put it simply, I believe that’s the point of the film. It is certainly necessary for Blade Runner’s ability to blur the categorical lines we mentally form about human identity. The implications posed if Replicants are indeed developing genuine emotions can be astounding. If we accept that Replicants do feel emotional pain and pleasure no different from our own and if we accept that emotional complexities imply a conscience being, then what does this say about our desire to stamp out these entities like an experiment gone awry? Furthermore, how foolproof is the Voight-Kampff test and can we really reduce emotion to an analysis of questions, answers, and pupil dilations? Certainly, there have been people to fool a polygraph that we’re certain are humans.   

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One intriguing motif is the focus on eyes. The Voight-Kampff test examines the pupil’s contractions like a pulse, or like peering into the window of a being’s soul. If you’ve taken general anatomy, you’d learn that the only living surface tissue is from the eyes. The 30 or so layers of skin cells we see are in fact dead. Similarly, eyes offer us something intrinsically insightful to understanding our subject. Present us with a shady person covering his eyes, or someone with dark sunglasses, and we form a preconceived notion of their accessibility in the back of our minds. This focus on eyes brings to my mind the camera lens itself, garnering the film with a self-examination of sorts. To an extent, the act of filming is something of a mirror image to the Voight-Kampff test. Rather than examine existing emotions, film instead (often artificially) produces emotions, often in settings that couldn’t be further from intimate (a common complaint about film acting, I hear, is how impersonal and haphazard it seems compared to say, the stage).   

The film distances us from the humans, and other than knowing that the Replicants aren’t human, the playing field is leveled. My own sympathies lie closer to the Replicants, partly because it is not their choice to exist as they want. They have been born into slavery to the point where they are no longer treated as humans but mechanical beings that have developed emotions as if by downloading software. Mankind has built them with a specific function: manual labor, assassination, pleasure, or military services. I am reminded of a Simpsons episode where Bart and Lisa are at military school, and their CO tells them that in the future, wars will not be fought between humans, but between robots and preferably in space. Yet this prospect is being fulfilled right now. Today, pilots are able to fly remote bombers from the comfort of their own home and drop several megatons of ordnance with the push of a button. The disconnect has risen, and killing almost becomes a virtual act. Blade Runner has taken this idea one step further by incorporating the weapons with a conscience. Prostitution, too, is a common point of attack on capitalism, the idea being that selling yourself is something of a violation of our dignity. There have certainly been a few masterpieces on the subject. The reference to Pris as a “basic pleasure model” is said with such casualty, it again suggests a disconnect with what should be a touchy subject. The Replicants are not so much prostitutes as they are sex slaves, and it is disturbing how such a thing can be accepted just because they aren’t considered human. Are they lesser even than animals?   

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I said earlier that I sympathize with Replicants because it is not their choice to exist. I realize a potential hole in this argument, since we too, have not chosen to exist, but were borne into this world by our parents’ choice (or accident). In Blade Runner, there is the idea of Man playing God, so to speak. I am not religious, but I’m not adverse to the ideas and implications thereof. Tyrell is like God, creating Replicants in his own image. He is constantly tinkering with his design, attempting to perfect not merely form or emotion, but the act of creation itself. If you accept the auteur theory to any degree, than Ridley Scott, too, is the God of his film, constantly improving his creation through modification. Tyrell, seemingly safe in his obsidian, Mayan-like pyramid, is something of a father figure to Roy Batty, who is obviously supposed to be Christ. In a sense, Blade Runner accomplishes what The Last Temptation of Christ did: give its Christ a human face and allow us to empathize with what is possibly the most mythological figure in history. Roy is born into the world with a destiny, so to speak. He is confused and grappling with his own existence because of his new-found emotion. By the end, we even see him drive a nail through his palm, ultimately accepting his fate and sparing Deckard. Perhaps this is another rationalization for having Deckard as a human: He serves as an allegory for those that Christ sacrificed himself to save. The end of the film offers a measure of hope, even if the Final Cut wisely removes that incongruous ending of the original.   

Why does Roy save Deckard? I don’t believe it’s because he’s a Replicant, as this seems to simplify Roy’s actions. The film does depart from a straight Christian parable, partly because Christ didn’t drag humanity through the mud only to save them in the end. I think part of it has to do with empathy. Roy is essentially near death, like being cursed with a terminal disease out of his control. By having Deckard not only being helpless, but also dependent on Roy, he is turning the tables and switching roles with the blade runner and making him see what it is like to be so close to death. Roy accepts his fate, but this final act is a way of putting Deckard in his shoes, in the hopes of making him (and mankind) see his existential dilemma.   

Christ didn’t kill God as Roy kills Tyrell either. The lead up to that scene, with J.F. Sebastian, plays like something of an uprising from the lower class. Roy is leveling the social playing field, which has so often given the upper classes, well... the upper hand. As Roy and Sebastian physically rise to Tyrell’s level, they are rising up to socially meet him face to face, symbolized by the chess game. Sebastian is a societal reject, having to build his own friends and is essentially treated as a child (he does, after all, appear to be the oldest person ever with Methuselah Syndrome; and children, too, create their own friends). He is something of a poster child for the lower class. But wait a minute... Roy kills both of them! It can’t be because he’s scared of having a witness. Rather, I think the act of killing Tyrell and Sebastian represents a kind of social purging. If you want another biblical allegory, perhaps it is akin to the Noachian flood. He is killing off the class structure and through Deckard, removing humanity’s prejudice.    
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Blade Runner, admittedly, isn’t the easiest film to watch. There’s so much going on in the frame that it takes multiple viewings just to sort out who everyone is and to penetrate their character’s superficial inaccessibility. I have only seen the original 1982 cut and the 2007 Final Cut. The voice over of the original, interesting for what it is (and because it adds to the noirish feel), is wisely removed from the 2007 cut. I don’t have a strong desire to watch the other versions, and I do think the Final Cut works well, but I’ll try and get to them eventually. Regardless, Blade Runner is a fascinating, monumental achievement that is deeply rooted in a kind of 80s counterculture. 


  1. very detailed analysis. :]

  2. Really awesome work, incredibly helpful for anyone trying to study the film or for anyone who just wants to get a better grip on the film's ideas. Consider the idea that Roy saves Deckard in the end not necessarily to teach him a lesson about compassion, but because the only thing that Roy values at that point is life. What do you think of the idea of lightness and darkness? Why is it frequently so dark outside yet unnaturally bright indoors in the film?