Canonical cinema rarely gets much richer than Ridley Scott’s 1982 film “Blade Runner.” Of course, by “Blade Runner” I refer to the “Final Cut,” Scott’s definitive version of the film whose themes are mirrored in the fragmented identity of its various renditions (for context, seven versions of the film are known to exist). The film, loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 sci-fi novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” as well as the literature of William Gibson (“Neuromancer”) helped to create the subgenre of sci-fi known as cyberpunk.
The setting is an overpopulated, dilapidated Los Angeles in the year 2019 — a not too distant future from today’s standpoint. Modern sciences have mastered the manufacture of robots to the point of indistinguishable human similitude, robots known as Replicants. After an insurrection on an Off-World colony on Mars, specialized police units composed of bounty hunters known as Blade Runners were formed to hunt and kill (the film’s expository text crawl establishes, “This was not called execution. It was called retirement.”) any Replicants on Earth. “Blade Runner” follows Rick Deckard — a 40-year-old Harrison Ford, fresh from the successes of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” — a former Blade Runner who is coercively tasked with the job of retiring four “skin jobs” in a plot that sees him struggle to find his grip on his own identity.
Thirty-five years later and “Blade Runner” is more of a relevant work of art than ever before: An upcoming sequel directed by Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”) and written by original screenwriter Hampton Fancher, the “Ghost in the Shell” remake whose visual aesthetic draws heavily from “Blade Runner,” video games such as “Cyberpunk 2077” and the rise of technology paralleled by the debasement of society that defines the subgenre all call to mind the significance of this film.
The Cyberpunk World
One of Ridley Scott’s most vital contributions to the field of sci-fi was the world building he envisioned with “Blade Runner” — the grand scope of a dystopian world where no detail, irrespective of its importance, lacks attention and contributes to the mise-en-scene. The now-famous special effects utilized trickery typical to moviemaking of that time period, like forced perspective in the opening Hades Landscape city crawl that Douglas Trumbull made so iconic. But more important than the practical effect laboring that went on behind the scenes (in no way disregarding the immaculate effects as key components of the film) is the vision of the future in the form of advanced technology and eyecatching cityscapes.
Visual futurist Syd Mead (whose work is also visible in “Aliens” and “Tron”) helped to form the futuristic aesthetic of “Blade Runner,” taking influence from eastern U.S. metropolitan areas such as New York and Boston, pastiching the perennial rainfall and modern skyscrapers that amalgamate in a city whose identity is as heterogeneous as its inhabitants. Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” as with modern Japan, are reference points for the film’s foreboding skyscrapers whose immense verticality relay themes of power in which “decent people just don’t … (go) below the 30th floor.” Mead’s work has essentially haunted cyberpunk fiction creators whose attempts at establishing visually driven universes often evoke the inevitable “Blade Runner” comparison.
Part of what makes the future so stimulating in “Blade Runner” is the sheer practicality of it all. Cityspeak, the language spoken by most of the ground-level denizens of the Los Angeles slums, is a patchwork of languages from all over the world, including Japanese, Spanish, Hungarian, German and English. As it exists today, Los Angeles isn’t exactly the most homogenous of places with regards to ethnic demographics and variety of languages spoken, a melting pot if there ever was one. Depravity, too, is mirrored in the real world foreshadowing of the film; homelessness and crime are embedded into the Los Angeles of 2019 not unlike the Los Angeles of 2017. Driving down skid row is one of the most dreary acts one can engage in while in the city, with tents and makeshift beds housing thousands of disenfranchised humans both young and old. Vagrants litter the base city streets in the film, often committing crime for no clear or discernible reason save to make a quick buck off looting or to pass the time.
“Off-World” colonies advertise life on Mars in a manner eerily predictive, or at least suggestive, of what a future beyond this terrestrial space would look like. Many might remember SpaceX and talk of how Elon Musk plans to send humans to Mars — a ludicrous dream we drudge toward as if from a video game or film. “Blade Runner’s” earth, desecrated as a result of pollution and disregard for a hospitable future, echoes truths in today’s world with animals going extinct in increasing numbers as well as the looming fear of laissez-faire governmental policies furthering the pollution of the planet.
Aesthetically, cyberpunk is strictly the confluence of a world where advanced technology (flying cars, space travel, cybernetic augmentation, etc.) and an unprincipled dystopian society coexist in toxic symbiosis. But in a world defined by those tenants visible in the periphery, the individual self and identity see themselves as major motifs in “Blade Runner.”
More Human Than Human
In the special featurette, “On the Edge of Blade Runner,” Rutger Hauer takes note that “(Deckard is) not the hero, he’s the bad guy.” This is coming from the guy who wrote the “tears in the rain” monologue that his character, Roy Batty, utters moments before death. “Blade Runner,” I would argue, is fundamentally a character study of the three mains (Deckard, Rachael, Batty) who all are faced with the question of what it means to be human. Not a unique question per se but the film’s setting is the perfect conduit to explore this longstanding philosophical conundrum, as Philip K. Dick posits that “sci-fi is essentially the field of ideas.”
Scott and Dick differ in their views of Replicants — the former views them as superhuman characters whose higher degree of empathy makes them sympathizable mirrors of us humans whereas Dick saw them as deplorable subhumans, the same stature Deckard assumes by the end. Once Deckard’s sole identity, which is that of a Blade Runner, is called into question in the form of newfound empathy for Replicants (after killing one), his identity crisis ensues. Him deconstructing Rachael’s only self-concept, inadvertently proving to her that she is in fact a Replicant, similarly ensues an internal conflict. But on the other spectrum of character morality is Batty.
Hauer’s performance of a Replicant whose sole goal is “more life” is as deliberate as it is absorbing to watch. His atrocities — the murder of innocent people who he sees as irredeemable for their role in creating his synthetic body — make sense when he is recontextualized as the film’s true sympathizable hero. Where Deckard rapes (yeah, he does, watch the scene again) Rachael, it’s less so an instance of him understanding her similar feelings of perturbation and urging her to act out on her human emotions and more so an act of coercion wherein “our hero” physically dominates his love interest to cope with his identity crisis. There is undoubtedly a complexity to this scene that a cursory viewing fails to capture, but the nuances in their dynamics particularly illustrate Deckard’s descent into the degenerate subhuman he sees Replicants to be. Contrast that with Batty’s earnest quest to prolong his condensed life (“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long”), his attempt to redeem Deckard during their confrontation morphs the whole hero and villain dynamic to add a more nuanced repeat viewing.
“Blade Runner’s” philosophizing on what it means to be human is as bleak as it is thought-provoking, even after all this time. The world is already headed into a quasi-cyberpunk future as is, giving Scott’s seminal sci-fi noir hybrid a renewed urgency as we ask what we as humans have done to ourselves and the world around us.