For those who have read my previous movie reviews of “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Meet John Doe,” I should warn you that this is less of a review and more of an analysis. Spoilers are included, but I don’t believe I’ll ruin the movie for those who haven’t seen it, but if you are worried, watch the movie first, then come back and read this article. I will tell you up-front that this movie may not be your cup of tea. If you are not into science fiction or self-examination or movies that make you think, you may want to skip this one. Although it might sound narcissistic, www.paultarver.com was created to give me a place to write about the things that I like and that might interest readers as well. And I like this movie. A lot.
Now that the obligatory disclaimer out of the way, let me tell you about a movie named “Blade Runner” (1982).
I love really good science fiction. I’m generally not into fantasy science fiction, but rather prefer science fiction firmly rooted in the reality of human relationships. For example, while “Star Trek” takes place in the future, the stories’ foundations are the inter-personal relationships of the crew and the entities they encounter. “Star Wars” is at its heart an ancient hero myth set in a different time and place all wrapped up in family tragedy and tied with the ribbon of redemption. “The Robot Series” of books by Isaac Asimov spend a great deal of time examining the relationship between a human detective named Elijah Baley and a robot assistant named R. Daneel Olivaw as they solve mysteries. In my opinion, at it’s best, science fiction should be free to examine very human issues in a non-threatening way.
In many of the science fiction novels and movies I enjoy, the future is portrayed with optimism and hope that life will be better than today with lots of gadgets, new worlds to be explored and new ways to get to those worlds. Technology never overwhelms the story, but rather is used as the backdrop and the set-pieces that help tell the story of a person’s journey toward self discovery. On the other hand, Blade Runner is the exact opposite because technology is the story and it is the story’s reason for being. In the words of one of the main characters, “I’m not in the business, I am the business.”
A dark and dirty world is on display in this film set in the year 2019. Technology has “advanced” to the point that genetic duplicates of humanity called “Replicants” are manufactured by The Tyrell Corporation. The Earth is overcrowded, polluted and oppressive enough that people are actively trying to exit the planet and move to off-world colonies. Unfortunately, many people are prevented from leaving because of age, health or genetic reasons.
Early versions of replicants used on Earth were great helpers to humanity, but they would become mentally unstable after about four years and needed to be “put-down” by special police squads called “Blade Runners.” As technology improved, replicants became virtually indistinguishable from humans and were subsequently outlawed on Earth only to be used as slaves in the off-world colonies. Replicants occassionally escaped their servitude and some returned to Earth and tried to live among humans. Blade Runners became skilled at detecting replicants by administering Voight-Kampff tests which measured subjects emotional and empathetic responses to series of questions.
By the year 2019, scientists discovered that providing replicants with “false memories” usually taken from real humans made replicants more controllable. But The Tyrell Corporation scientists never solved the problem of mental instability occurring approximately four years after a replicant’s incept (“birth”) date. The solution? Build-in a four year life span for replicants thus guaranteeing regular replacement business and preventing replicant melt-downs before they happen. The latest Nexus-6 line of replicants are the strongest, smartest, most adaptable replicants ever produced and in the words of the founder of the Tyrell Corporation, they are “more human than human.”
The movie begins with the attempted murder of a skilled Blade Runner as he administers a Voight-Kampff test to one member of a group of 5 replicants who escaped slavery and returned to Earth in an attempt to convince their “creator” to grant them more life. Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is called out of retirement to hunt down the replicants and “retire” them (the euphemistic term for killing replicants). Deckard is tired, worn out, and burned out just like the world he lives in. Deckard is “brought in” by fellow Blade Runner, Gaff (Edward James Olmos), to see his former police boss, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh). After enduring Bryant’s prejudices and threats, Deckard is convinced/cornered and so reluctantly accepts Bryant’s invitation to come back “like the old times.” Deckard’s beliefs about the line separating humans and replicants are shaken when as part of his investigation, he goes to the Tyrell Corporation to give a Voight-Kampff test to Rachel, played to perfection by Sean Young. Deckard determines that Rachel is a replicant who doesn’t know she’s a replicant and by the end of this test Deckard starts to question his own humanity. The questions increase as the case unfolds.
In its simplest form, Blade Runner is a detective story/chase/thriller with great visuals and a great romance. Scratch the surface and you’ll find deep examination of what it means to be human. Scratch a little more and you’ll discover a thoughtful treatise on the implications of scientific advances such as genetic research, cloning, and other obvious attempts of man to play God.
The primary antagonist, Roy Batty, is played by Rutger Hauer and this character gets some of the meatiest dialogue. A case in point is the moment when Roy confronts his “creator” and demands more life. His disappointment is apparent and students of the film have debated Roy’s relationship with his creator and the reaction he has to Tyrell’s answer. Deckard is the protagonist, and yet, often questions his own motivation as he does the dirty work of retiring replicants. Weird thing is, no matter how much he questions himself, Deckard is good at what he does. Not so good that he can do it without getting up close and personal with his work, but good just the same.
Ethics, friendships, loyalty, romance and society are all covered and addressed albeit through the lens of science fiction which has always been a great way to discuss difficult topics without the baggage we all carry getting in the way. Replicant Pris is played by Darryl Hannah in one of her earliest roles, Joanna Cassidy plays Zhora, James Hong plays Dr. Chew, and William Sanderson is wonderful as the genetically disabled genius, J. F. Sebastian. It’s a great film but I promise you will not get it all in one viewing.
- First Viewing: You’ll focus on the visuals, which were stunning in 1982 when the film was released and are still stunning today. Director Ridley Scott endured the wrath of many of the people working on the film because of his single-mindedness about achieving the look and feel of the movie. Harrison Ford has apparently made peace with Scott over the years but initially he was very frustrated with the whole process of making the film. Today, many people wonder if Ford’s frustration actually shows on the screen and makes his performance better.
- Second Viewing: You’ll focus on the replicants and see the story from their point of view. Roy is captivating and hard to not watch, but all of the replicants have their moment and the actors selected to play the various roles were perfect selections. You’ll also have time to actually understand more of the relationship between Deckard and Rachel. You’ll also wonder if Deckard is just lucky or is he the Rocky Balboa of Blade Runners.
- Third Viewing: You’ll pay more attention to the awesome soundtrack and recognize the effect the music has on the mood of the scenes. You’ll also begin to wonder if Deckard is a replicant or is human. If he is human how can he empathize with his targets so much and if he is a replicant, how can he justify killing his own kind.
- Fourth Viewing: You’ll want to read Philip K. Dick’s book, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” which was the original source for the script. Do not expect the book to bear a lot of resemblance to movie other than the main character Deckard and more philosophical questions than you can shake a stick at.
- Fifth Viewing: You’ll be sufficiently immersed in the world of 2019 to watch the story the way it was meant to be seen and you’ll pick up on many of the little things such as Gaff’s fascination with origami and you’ll begin to see many of the subtle hints of plot threads that director Scott scattered throughout the film.
- Sixth Viewing: You’ll discover that you are hooked on Blade Runner and want to watch all seven of the different releases of the film to spot differences or errors. The original theater release included a voice-over by Harrison Ford that I personally don’t mind but many fans do. You might consider watching the original release with the voiceover first to get more of the backstory and then watch the Director’s Cut without the voiceover. I have to say that I’ve seen both versions of the film and though every scene is basically the same, the two films are vastly different in way they feel and I love them both. It’s something you’ll have to discover on your own, but eventually you’ll probably find yourself choosing one version or the other as your favorite like most Blade Runner fans.
No review of Blade Runner would be complete without reference to the soundtrack. Vangelis (Acadamy Award winner for Chariots of Fire) scored and preformed the music on his synthesizers and created a sound like no other science fiction movie. His use of vocals, chimes and saxophones completed the retro sounding film-noir that Ridley Scott was trying to achieve with the look of the film. It took over a decade for the soundtrack to be released for the movie due to licensing issues with Vangelis. Because of the delay there are several bootleg editions of the soundtrack music, which you should avoid because of the low quality of these recordings. The CD you want was released in 1994 by Vangelis. A 3-CD set was released in 2007 as part of the 25th anniversary of the movie’s release and according to Wikipedia, the first CD contains the same music as the 1994 CD and the 2nd CD contains previously unreleased music from the movie while the 3rd CD is all new music composed by Vangelis inspired by the movie. Recently, I featured the Love Theme from Blade Runner on a Valentine’s Day Edition of The Morning Show on WMOX. Here’s the full song with clips from the movie:
Blade Runner has inspired lots debates in the past 25 plus years. Go to Google and type in “Blade Runner” and you’ll get some 5.6 Million links many of which cover these controversies in depth reducing my need to cover all of them here. However, I’d like to mention just a few to give you an idea of how serious people take this film.
- Is Deckard a replicant or a human? – Probably the most asked and yet really unanswered question on the Internet. I choose to believe that Deckard is human because the relationship between Deckard and Rachel is much more dramatic knowing Deckard is human and Rachel is a replicant. At least to me, but you can make your own decision on this one. Ridley Scott says that Deckard is a replicant, but others associated with the film are adamant that he is human. You decide.
- What makes humanity…human? The film provides the question but never really answers it fully. Is it our memories, our souls or the ability to empathize? For me it is the soul, but sometimes thinking about the question can make us all, well, better humans. Perhaps it is a combination of all three. Ultimately the film seems to say that memories alone are not enough and experience alone is not enough so what are you left with?
- How does technology impact and change our world and is it always for the better? As a computer guru, I am acutely aware that I work in a field that could potentially work against humanity in spite of the good computers have brought to all our lives. Everyday I hear of some new use of technology that limits or interferes with individual freedoms. Sometimes, it’s weird to examine this issue, but it is something I think about from time to time.
- What are the moral implications of genetic research or scientists playing God? Without making a direct judgment, the film displays both the good and bad potentials of genetic research. Roy Batty makes a comment to the scientist that created his eyes that I find telling. Roy says, “If you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.” The statement reveals a certain pity the created feels for the creator that makes me wonder if there is a point where our humanity will actually be diminished by certain scientific exploration.
- Is Deckard a hero or an anti-hero? In reverse, the same question might be asked this way: Is Roy Batty Frankenstein’s monster or is he really Deckard’s mirror image? From my point of view, I like to think of Deckard and Roy as opposite sides of the same personality. At the beginning of the movie, Deckard is burned out on life and just going through the motions; doing a job. Alternatively, Roy Batty is fighting for his survival, willing to go as far as necessary to achieve his goal. Deckard gains love as Roy loses love. Deckard finally finds hope in the life he has left, just as Roy loses the last of his life. The arc of their lives are clearly in opposition and inversely related. Roy the hunted becomes the hunter as their roles are reversed and Deckard becomes the hunted instead of the hunter.
As a confirmed fan of Star Wars and Star Trek (original cast), I have to tell you that the look of this film is a complete departure from what those other movies present as the future and perhaps that’s what makes Blade Runner so compelling. The fact is our today was yesterday’s future. As Ridley Scott explained it, “The future is old.” This is simply a realization that the future will be made up of the sum of everything that came before it. For example, it is not unusual for us to see antique cars running up and down the roads. Buildings can be 50, 60 or 100 years old, they are not all brand new. To understand what I’m talking about, take a look at this video from the sixties and notice that their vision of the future included nothing old and everything is brand new.
But the truth is, when we arrive at the future it will be familiar and yet alien at the same time, but we won’t realize it because like age itself, the future creeps up on us incrementally. However, if you take a person of today and transport them a hundred years in the future, everything would be alien because that person would not have the benefit of the previous hundred years of history to anchor himself. A strange mix of old and new is probably the way the future will really be and it is what makes Blade Runner the most realistic movie of the future I’ve ever seen and obviously I’m not alone. Here’s a list of movies or television shows that have been directly influenced by Blade Runner: A.I. Artificial Intelligence; Dark City; Soldier; Total Recall; The Matrix; Virtuosity and many more. The movie Alien and to a lesser degree Star Wars included some ‘oldness’ in their portrayal of the future, but not to the extent of Blade Runner. It is my humble opinion that Blade Runner changed the look and feel of science fiction movies forever. If that is not enough to encourage you to watch this movie, consider that Blade Runner even has a “curse” attached to it.
I usually don’t like publishing spoilers, but given the age of the film and its popularity I don’t think that’s really an issue here. Even if you know the entire storyline going into your first viewing, there’s so much in there, you’ll still be overwhelmed. For example, here’s the climax of the film where Roy Batty confronts his own death and discovers in his last moments that any life is worth saving even if it is not his own. I promise if you watch this, all it will do is make you want to get the movie and watch the rest of it.
In the end, Roy Batty, a replicant, expresses best the fear of death that humans all have. Roy says as he dies, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe….All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.” Aside from the poetry and the beauty of that line, as individuals, we are all the sum total of all our experiences just as the future will be the sum total of everything that came before. Unlike the future, when we die, all those moments and memories that make us who we are will be lost, unrecorded and forgotten. Perhaps it is a bleak conclusion, but it reminds us all to live each of those moments to the fullest and make sure you leave your mark on someone else’s life. By saving Deckard’s life, Roy ensured his immortality in Deckard’s memory.
Blade Runner is rated ‘R’ for violence, some gore and some language. It was initially considered an action thriller, but there are so many dramatic themes in the film it is hard not to classify it as a drama. I know that science fiction isn’t for everyone and this movie definitely isn’t for small children, but it is a classic film and while it didn’t do well at the box office, it has held up remarkably well as the years have gone by and has generated a huge cult following.
Here’s just a few of the accolades the film has received over the years:
- American Film Institute listed it as the 97th greatest film of all time
- Blade Runner was voted the sixth best science fiction film ever made as part of the AFI’s 10 Top 10
- The Screen Directory currently ranks Blade Runner the third best film of all time.
- One of Time’s 100 All-Time best movies.
- British movie magazine Empire voted it the “Best Science Fiction Film Ever” in 2007.
- New Scientist readers voted it the “all-time favorite science fiction” film in Oct. 2008.
If you are interested in further study of this film, I cannot think of a better resource than The Home of Blade Runner. It is a fan site that includes many links to essays and other resources to help those interested in learning all they can about an old movie that tells the story of the future in a way that is still futuristic even today. I also would like to give some credit to Murray Chapman who maintained one of the original and most extensive website dedicated to Blade Runner and helped give fans a way to share information and learn more about this great film.
Oh yeah, if in the weird way the world works, Ridley Scott, Harrison Ford, Sean Young or any of the other cast members of Blade Runner happen to run across this article in the search engines of the Internet, I’d just like to say, “Thanks.”
“I was quit when I come in here. I’m twice as quit now.” – Rick Deckard