made his match.Poster for Blade Runner
computers, Sebastian. Were physical.Roy
It was twenty
years ago that Ridley Scotts Blade Runner
(R, 117 minutes, 1982) finally wrapped production and
was screened before test audienceswho, by the way,
routinely panned and even attacked the film. And even
though it opened in over 1,200 theaters in the summer
of 1982, it was a certified box office flop. Virtually
no one, it seems, liked Blade Runner. Fortunately,
however, the films discovery on cable TV, video
cassette and in revival houses revealed not only a cult
film par excellence but an emotionally challenging, thematically
complex work whose ideas and subtexts are just as startling
as its now famous production designs.
Set in Los Angeles in the
year 2019, Blade Runner shows a world where the
sun no longer shines. Instead, a constant rainy drizzle
adds to the dark character of this futuristic landscape.
The opening shots aerial perspective suggests a
modern Los Angeles, but the audience soon discovers a
very different citythe endless archipelago of suburbs
have been replaced by a dark and ominous landscape lit
only by occasional flare-ups of burning gas at oil refineries.
An energy shortage has crippled life in the future. The
earth is decayed, and millions of people have been forced
to colonize other planets. Those who remain behind live
in huge cities consisting of a conglomeration of new buildings
four hundred stories high and the dilapidated remains
of earlier times.
The streets teem with Orientals,
Hare Krishnas and men in fezzes, all lit by a lurid blaze
of flashing neon. The crunch and crush of modern population
seems overwhelming and totally dehumanizing. Genetic engineering
has become one of the earths major industries, with
humans now assuming the role of "maker" and "creator."
Since most of the worlds animals have become extinct,
genetic engineers now produce artificial animals. And
artificial humans called "replicants" have been created
to do the difficult, hazardous and often tedious work
necessary in the colonies on other planets.
If Michelangelo were alive
in Ridley Scotts future world, rather than portray
God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he would likely
paint the human creators of the Tyrell Corporation, the
worlds leading manufacturer of replicants. The corporation
has recently introduced the "Nexus-6," a replicant with
far greater strength and intelligence than human beings.
These latest-model replicants represent an obvious potential
danger to human society, and their introduction on earthan
offense calling for the death penaltyhas been strictly
When the replicants somehow
make their way back to earth, they are systematically
"retired" (but not "killed" since they are inhuman) by
special detectives or "blade runners" trained to track
down and liquidate the infiltrators. As Scott explains:
"A replicant is essentially a human being, an all-flesh
culture, that is very advanced and highly perfected. Thats
the odd dichotomy of the whole story. The detectives
job is to be a kind of policeman but also an exterminator,
if necessary. His job is to hunt replicants who happen
to find their way into the city. They have no right to
be there because the replicants were originally developed
for off-world situations, military, industrial, mining.
They are kind of a second-class generation developed for
inhospitable environments and dangerous or boring work."
Police receive an emergency
report that four "combat model" Nexus-6 replicantstwo
male and two femalehave killed the crew of a space
shuttle and returned to earth. The blade runner assigned
to track them down and "terminate" them is Deckard (Harrison
Ford, in his best performance). Another replicant, Rachael
(Sean Young), is discovered working under the watchful
eye of master geneticist Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and
is so socially adapted that she doesnt even know
shes a replicant. Deckard, however, subjects her
to lengthy sessions with his Voight-Kampff equipment (rather
like a lie detector apparatus) and concludes that she
is not human. Yet so desperate is his loneliness that,
even though he suspects she is a soulless artifact and
all her rather bland emotional responses have been "implanted,"
he falls in love with her.
The film shifts dramatically
when the replicants, who are on a mission to extend their
short life span, display a stronger sense of community
than the human beings on earth. With his three partners
now destroyed by explosive bullets, the silver-blonde
replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) succeeds in finding
his way to Tyrell himself, the master of the Tyrell Corporation
and the genetic engineering genius who actually designed
him. Batty wants to have his genetic code altered to extend
his assigned four-year life span. He simply wants to live.
But when he discovers he cannot, Batty kills Tyrell in
a despairing rage, calling him (as Zeus to Cronos) "Father."
At one point, Batty remarks: "Its a hard thing to
meet your maker."
No film sets have ever
so surrounded the actors as those in Blade Runner.
Adapted from Philip K. Dicks novel Do Androids
Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Scott gives us his
great masterpiece of "future noir," paying homage to the
Expressionism that ruled in many of the dark classics
of the 1940s. Most, however, do not know that it was a
seven-year odyssey to bring this film to the big screen.
In fact, the great difficulty and draining circumstances
surrounding the making of Blade Runner may have
been why it took Scott so long to regain his strideand
only recently with Gladiator (2000), Hannibal
(2001) and Black Hawk Down (2001).
Scott, hot from directing
the 1979 sci-fi classic Alien, is a perfectionist.
As Blade Runner fell behind schedule, he came under
intense pressure from the forces surrounding the filmmainly
the unions and production company execs. Also, the demanding
Scott soon fell out with star Harrison Ford and alienated
various members of the film crew. Some on the Blade
Runner crew began to resent Scotts intense and
aggressive personality. In reference to the American humorist
Will Rogers, renowned for claiming hed never met
a man he didnt like, t-shirts were consequently
printed up proclaiming, "Will Rogers Never Met Ridley
The reason Blade Runner
did not fare well with audiences or critics is because
many did not comprehend its overwhelming complexity and
darknessa product of what Scott defines as his characteristic
method of layering: "a kaleidoscopic accumulation of detail
every corner of the frame." A film, in his words, "is
a 700-layer cake." As such, a Ridley Scott film at its
best evokes, in Scott Bukatmans words, "a total
environment that one inhabits in real time." And its complex
layering, when viewers could replay scenes and the movie
in its entirety, made sense and thus became compulsory.
better films reach toward higher truths. Blade Runner,
thus, cannot be understood without comprehending the deeply
felt moral, philosophical, ecological and sociological
concerns that are interwoven throughout the story. Take,
for instance, the films titlea "Blade Runner"
is one who runs on the razors edge of life, cutting,
as the film proposes, somewhere between humanity and inhumanity.
As Paul M. Sammon writes: "Or witness the multiple examples
of narrative mirroring (or doubling) throughout. Deckard
kills two replicants; two replicants save his life. Deckard
finds a reason to live; Batty wants to live. Religious
parallels are also rampant: Tyrell is literally the replicants
God, and Batty, as Tyrells prodigal son, symbolically
pierces his hand with a nail, suggesting crucifixion.
Even the films horizontal/vertical design scheme
makes a statement; Blade Runners privileged
few live in luxurious towers, literally high above the
disenfranchised masses below."
Three key, yet profound,
questions contribute to the core of Blade RunnerWho
am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human? Thus,
the eternal problems in the film are essentially moral
ones; that is, should replicants kill to gain more life?
Should Deckard kill replicants simply because they want
Scott forces us into the
heart of the cybernetic statethe urban area as circled
back upon itself in a closed feedback loop. Scott, of
course, anticipated emerging cyberpunk where street level
was like the underworld and where humanity is subjected
to urban overload. Scott also anticipated cyberspace where
"space" is constituted by information technologies. Thus,
it was a logical extension of emerging computer technology
to conceive of "urban" as no longer synonymous with locale
but, instead, by the invisible circulation of information
permitted by telecommunication technologies.
In Blade Runner,
urban space moves toward the condition of cyberspace.
This is especially clear when Deckard electronically inspects
replicant Leons (Brion James) photographs. "By electronically
enhancing the photo with his computer, the surface of
the image is penetrated," writes Bukatman. "This inert
object, a mere trace of the past, becomes multi-dimensional
and is suddenly possessed of the present-tense modality
Defining the human, however,
provides most of Blade Runners philosophical
focus. This is increasingly the dilemma faced by contemporary
societythat is, the most vital question confronting
us is how to maintain humanness in the human race in the
face of overwhelming technologies that tend to dehumanize.
ergo sum is implied throughout the film, raising the
larger issue of what it means to be human. In this respect,
the replicant Pris (Daryl Hannah) stakes her claim to
cognitive humanity by remarking, "I think. Therefore,
I am." And Deckard (as in Descartes), as part of his police
work, gives empathy tests to suspected non-humans. Indeed,
who is or is not a human in Scotts futuristic vision
is up for grabs. This includes Deckard himself. "How do
you know you havent retired a human by mistake?"
Rachael asks him. "Have you ever taken the test yourself?"
Philip K. Dicks novel
promulgated a "sheep" metaphor. "Sheep stemmed
from my basic interest in the problem of differentiating
the authentic human being from the reflexive machine,
which I call an android. In my mind android is a metaphor
for people who are psychologically human but behaving
in a nonhuman way." During research for an earlier work,
Dick had discovered diaries by SS men stationed in Poland.
One sentence in particular had a profound effect on him.
That sentence read, "We are kept awake at night by the
cries of starving children." As Dick explained, "There
is obviously something wrong with the man who wrote that.
I later realized that, with the Nazis, what we were essentially
dealing with was a defective group mind, a mind so emotionally
defective that the word human could not be
applied to them." More importantly for us. "Worse," Dick
noted, "I felt that this was not necessarily a sole German
trait. This deficiency had been exported into the world
after World War II and could be picked up by people anywhere,
at any time."
The dilemma is even more
acute than when Dick was penning Sheep for we have
moved deeper into the methodological terrain of a new
worldone more than ever dominated by what we believe
to be the machine. As a consequence, we have reconstructed
the self in the face of the dissolution of the ontological
structures that have heretofore provided a validation
of being. In the wake of this dissolution, as Scott Bukatman
writes in Terminal Identity, we "humans" have arrived
at "a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station
or television screen."
In the case of the replicants
in Blade Runner, the so-called fusion of machine
preciseness is meshed with the matrix of human fleshbut
supposedly without the human characteristic of emotions,
empathy and so forth. Deckard, who had been indoctrinated
into believing that replicants were mere machines, was
facing an emotional dilemma because of a stirring of regret
(or empathy) when "retiring" the replicant/machines. As
we find out in the later 1992 directors cut of Blade
Runner, this could be that Deckard, possibly a replicant
himself, intuitively identified with them. Or was it simply
his humanity emerging from the closet of decayed urbanity
that engulfed him?
The central problems in
Blade Runner are essentially moral ones, producer
Michael Deeley points out. "Should the replicants kill
to gain moral life? Should Harrison Ford be killing them
simply because they want to exist? These questions begin
to tangle up Deckards thinking
he becomes involved with a female replicant himself."
The philosophy of Blade
Runner clearly aligns with the definition of humanity
that has dominated science fiction film in the fiftiesthe
golden age of the genre. Such classics as The Thing
from Another World, Invaders from Mars and Invasion
of the Body Snatchers all postulate that humans have
feelings, while non-humans do not. Blade Runner
discombobulates the theorem by denaturalizing it into
what has feelings is human. Thus, Blade Runner
is as much about Deckards recovery of empathetic
response as it is about the replicants development
of such a response. The irritated Nazis kept awake by
the childrens cries with their inability to empathize
were less than human. "What raises the android Roy Batty
to human status in Blade Runner," writes Norman
Spinrad, "is that, on the brink of his own death, he is
able to empathize with Deckard. What makes true beings
is that ultimately, on one level or another, whatever
reality mazes they may be caught in, they realize that
the true base reality is not absolute or perceptual, but
moral and empathetic."
The ultimate relevance
of Blade Runner lies in its challenge of what it
must mean to be human. It raises the eternal gnawing doubt
as to our own humanity or lack of it. These are the same
issues raised by the great religions and philosophies
of the past. And it goes to how we respond to the pain
of those around us. Do we reach for the one downed by
the crushing perplexity of modernity or do we merely pass
by, forgetting about that grizzled human lying on the
sidewalk who is drowning in the gutter created by the
disintegrating and dehumanizing post-modern existence?
Blade Runner is
one of the most copied films of all time. There are three
basic cuts of the filmtheatrical, international
and directors cut. The directors cut is recommended
for various reasons and provides the necessary clues as
to whether Deckard is a replicant or a human, a question
that many of us should be asking ourselves. After being
shown some preliminary footage of the film version of
his book, Dick said: "This is not like anything we have
. It isnt like anything that has
ever been done." This statement still stands.
Scott Bukatman, Blade
Runner (British Film Institute, 1997)
Scott Bukatman, Terminal
Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction
(Duke University Press, 1993)
Paul M. Sammon, Future
Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (HarperPrism, 1996)
Paul M. Sammon, Ridley
Scott (Thunders Mouth Press, 1999)
Norman Spinard, "The Transmogrification
of Philip K. Dick," in Science Fiction in the Real
World (Southern Illinois University Press, 1990)
J. P. Telotte, Science
Fiction Film (Cambridge University Press, 2001)