More human than human
Blade Runner is directed by Ridley Scott and stars Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, and Edward James Olmos. It is based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick and is praised by many people to be one of the best science fiction films of all time.
Out of all the possible genres of film out there, the one that I can say I have the most personal preference to is science fiction. I enjoy watching as wide of a variety of films as I can, but for as long as I can remember, I have always had a soft spot for science fiction. To me, no other genre is as capable of being both smart and exciting as science fiction. Action is usually exciting, but more often than not lacks brains. Drama and biopics may normally be smart, but come up short on excitement. And while there are plenty of exciting, dumb sci-fi flicks as well as smart, boring sci-fi films, the likes of Aliens and the first two Terminator films are prime examples of how science fiction can be both smart and exciting. If there is any one function that science fiction normally serves, whether on film or in book format, it would be to create a fictional reality that, in some way, is a metaphor or thoughtful outlook on the perception of our own real world. It's not always just a bunch of gun-wielding heroes taking down killer aliens or evil robots. That is one end of the sci-fi spectrum that is best spent when one wants to do nothing but shut their brain off for two hours. One could also gravitate towards the other end of the spectrum where the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Metropolis hang out, where guns, violence, and action are practically non-existent, instead focusing on being as thoughtful and layered as can be. So as I go on and on about the endless wonders of science fiction, I'm sure you might be wondering, "If you're so affectionate towards science fiction, do you have a favorite science fiction movie?"
Indeed I do: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.
Themes regarding man vs. machine are a classic in science fiction. Never will there be another film that so masterfully captures the idea of man vs. machine than Blade Runner. It is a movie that requires multiple viewings, challenging you to marvel about its bleak outlook on the future, as opposed to a glorious chrome paradise that others might suggest. Watching Blade Runner grows more and more interesting by the day, because we'd like to compare its version of 2019 with what the actual 2019 will be once it rolls around, which leads me to the plot.
In 2019 Los Angeles, the Tyrell Corporation has taken Robot evolution into what is called the Nexus phase. The creations are robotic beings known as replicants, who are virtually identical to humans. The replicants were superior in many facets, but were used primarily as slave labor in the process of creating Off-world colonies. A mutiny takes place on one of the Off-world colonies, resulting in replicants being declared illegal on Earth, facing the penalty of death. Special police officers, known as Blade Runners, are trained and given orders to hunt down and kill any replicants that are trespassing on Earth. One of these Blade Runners is Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who is trying to enjoy retirement. However, Deckard is brought back in by his former supervisor and is told that four replicants are running loose nearby. Deckard is ordered to hunt down and kill ("retire" as the film puts it) the trespassing replicants.
It would've been ridiculously easy for Ridley Scott to turn Blade Runner into a popcorn sci-fi action flick. The idea of a man running around and hunting down dangerous trespassers in an advanced, futuristic society is as good of a premise as you could get for a grimy shoot-em-up. You won't find any kind of shoot-em-up here. The most that Deckard wields weapon-wise is his signature pistol gun, and anything that can be appropriately categorized as action throughout the film's 117 minutes boils down to just some gunshots and a few landed fists. Even when we do have violent confrontations, Scott has them so elegantly shot, that the cinematography is nothing short of spectacular. Every death scene is drawn out with amazing dramatic effect that completely blurs the line between hero and villain. There is an age-old question about the film asking if Deckard himself is a replicant. If you've seen the Final Cut (there are so many different cuts that it would takes forever to distinguish them all), the one that seems to be the most recommended, there are clues throughout the film that highly support the claim that Deckard is indeed a replicant.
Deckard hardly resembles anything of a save-the-day hero. He is a troubled man who lives alone in a giant apartment complex, indulging himself with alcohol whenever he gets the chance. The first time I saw the film, I mostly thought it was just bland acting on the part of Ford, since Deckard barely smiles and sports a "just doing my job" attitude throughout. But upon repeated viewings, it became clear to me that it's not right to fault Ford for not being Han Solo, since we're not necessarily supposed to feel any better about Deckard just because he's completing one final assignment. If anything, we might be disappointed in Deckard because he never takes the effort to understand why the replicants are on Earth and what they hope to achieve.
There is a lot of intrigue in learning about the replicants' motives, further adding to how deep and complex that Blade Runner is. These are not machines who only desire world domination. They desire the chance to live, the opportunity to experience life the way a normal human would. The one thing that truly distinguishes a human from a replicant is, at least how it's explained in the book which I did read a while back, a sense of empathy. Deckard and other police officers administer what is called a Voight-Kampff test (coming from a paper by the famous Alan Turing), in which people are asked a series of questions in which their responses are recorded. The questions we see being asked usually come down to a situation in which an animal or other person is put into some kind of distress, such as how would one react if a turtle was flipped over in a hot desert, and it couldn't flip back over onto its feet? Again I must mention that Blade Runner is a film that cannot be fully appreciated and understood after just one viewing. There's just too much going on with its story, characters, and setting that no person could hope to catch everything on just one dry viewing. I've seen the film three times now, and each viewing has added something new.
- The movie is a visual splendor, even though the futuristic world it presents is a dark and depressing one. The opening shot of the film is an overhead view of 2019 Los Angeles with flames coming out of smokestacks from below. There is not a single shot in the film that looks as if it's taking place in the midst of a bright, shiny day. Rain is always falling, streets are overcrowded, and tall buildings are everywhere without a sign of green, grassy forests or colorful flowers. We are told that animals we see during the film, mainly an owl and a snake, are artificial, suggesting that these type of animal species went extinct some time ago. It's a world completely controlled by corporations and technology. Mother Nature is nowhere to be found.
Hold on, I just said the movie is a visual splendor. How in the world can that be true based on what I just described above? It is true that Blade Runner is a film dominated by murky, depressing colors. But the way that Ridley Scott and company go about putting together the neon, techno-fueled Los Angeles is remarkable in a finding beauty in ugliness sort of way.
- Blade Runner is enhanced, not diminished, because of its lack of action. There are only four replicants that Deckard needs to find and "retire", and there's a lot of investigative work for Deckard to go through before he can even get to one. While Deckard is on the hunt, we watch two of the replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) meet with a man named J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson). Sebastian suffers from Methuselah Syndrome, which causes his body to age faster than normal. He and the replicants have something in common: being looked down upon by society because of their inherent differences. There's no time wasted watching Deckard pointlessly maneuver through buildings, trigger-ready. Blade Runner takes its time to set up its characters and deliver big pay offs when they finally clash.
- All of Blade Runner's flaws are so minor that you might not even want to call them flaws. Deckard gets together with Rachel, a replicant woman he meets at the Tyrell Corporation, but in a way that comes off as awkwardly forced. It's easy to look past given the richness of everything else.
My own take on Blade Runner is one that heavily mirrors that of the film's general consensus over time. I first watched it when I had to write an essay on it and Philip K. Dick's novel for a class in college. I didn't think too highly of it, but that was largely because I barely understood it what it was really about. Upon doing extensive research on the film and learning more about it, I could not resist repeated viewings. Now having seen the film on three different occasions over the span of a few years, it has become a sci-fi film that I know I will cherish for years to come. Ridley Scott has given us the finest cinematic example when it comes to talking about man vs. machine and the ever-growing role of technology in our always advancing society. Blade Runner is a neo-noir, frightfully realistic experience that rightfully deserves to be ranked among the very best of science fiction.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: