Blade Runner is the best designed and most meditative American science fiction film this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, this statement is not without qualification forty years after its initial release. For my purposes here, I may as well admit to writing a feature for the fifteenth anniversary of Blade Runner: The Final Cut. It’s likely that any conversation about Ridley Scott’s masterpiece centres itself on this later release. Scott is an interesting filmmaker, a statement likewise not without heavy qualification. Alien and Blade Runner have secured his reputation in perpetuity. Scott also makes terrible films: sometimes, as with the original cut of Blade Runner, owing to studio interference, more often because he doesn’t know when to let a good thing lie, as with Prometheus. He’s a studio hack, with all the attendant paraphernalia that implies.
The production history of Blade Runner is well known. After negative responses from a test screening, Warner Bros. reworked significant portions of the film, ostensibly for clarity. Most famously, this included the recording of a superfluous voiceover delivered by Harrison Ford apparently without the presence of a director. Moreover, the inclusion of narration detracts from the success of the images. The coldness for which the film is famous is achieved entirely within the frame. Overlaying an afterthought destroys the architecture upon which the film is built. Earlier versions of the script included some voiceover, in a nod to the noir sensibility so evident in the production. Ford and Scott eventually cut this to great effect. The result is undoubtedly Ford’s most completely realised performance.
Whatever lack of clarity felt by the test audience could only have been the result of cinematic illiteracy. Worse still is the egregious happy ending tacked on with the help of B-roll borrowed from the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. American audiences brook no ambiguity. Enough said. There have been subsequent alternate cuts, including a director’s cut for which the director had no input, but it was the arrival of The Final Cut in 2007 that gave us the Blade Runner we were always meant to see.
The film is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Odds are you’ve seen this book on a shelf with John Alvin’s iconic release poster for Blade Runner on the cover. If you squint, you might see the original title of the book tucked away somewhere. The film and the poster are ubiquitous in the public imagination, though this in no way detracts from what Dick achieves in the book. That being said, the source and the adaptation are different beasts. The text that opens the film summarises the bare bones of the plot that undergirds both works: Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a publicly licenced bounty hunter who kills genetically engineered slaves.
The term ‘blade runner’ famously appears nowhere in the source material. The name comes from a treatment for an adaptation by William S. Burroughs of Alan E. Nourse’s novel The Bladerunner. This reveals nothing about the film but it does suggest much about how Hollywood approaches adaptation. Scott and the writers had a film with no title and knew about a title with no film. Purchase the rights to one and you don’t have to worry about the other. Nevertheless, Blade Runner successfully adapts Dick’s novel to 1982. While not as rich as the novel, Scott and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples rigorously sharpen the central thematic concern of Androids. Rather than illustrating the novel, the filmmakers interpret and adapt the source for the screen.
The opening scene immediately sets itself apart from the source, suggesting William Gibson more than Dick. The first thing anyone is likely to notice is Vangelis’ synthesisers, improvised over videotapes of the scenes. The music is intimately tied to the images, with awesome results. Vangelis (who died during the writing of this review) expresses the scope and strangeness of the setting. The skyline is perpetually dark, marked out by columns of fire. This is Los Angeles in 2019 imagined in 1982, the exponential, destructive growth extrapolated not entirely off the mark. An insert of an eye plants a recurring image, to startling effect. We gaze, uncertainly, over an alien landscape.
As the action starts, Scott plants the viewer firmly in noir territory. Cigarette smoke swirls over Dave Holden, played by Morgan Paull. A plethora of gadgets reveal that he’s in charge of whatever it is we’re seeing. Leon Kowalski (Brion James), an employee of the Tyrell Corporation, sits opposite the man. The parameters of the test to which Leon is subjected are laid out. The questions he is asked are designed to provoke an emotional response. Empathy, the human response to the Other, is the abyssal problem posed in Blade Runner. Leon quickly exerts control over the situation, setting in motion the cat and mouse driving the narrative.
Leon’s eyes reflect light, as would the eyes of a false owl. This is a recurring image specifically related to the Nexus-6 replicants. (Scott asserts this is non-diegetic, so don’t think too hard when Deckard’s eyes briefly display the effect.) Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Leon later confront the technician responsible for these eyes (James Howe). They question him on biological problems, setting them on a path towards the Tyrell Corporation. Replicants have an in-built four-year lifespan, the problem this group of fugitives seeks to overcome. The Nexus-6 are then in a peculiar position, as they not only know their creators, but can confront them. When the technician recognises his handiwork, Roy responds: “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.” In this instance, we become keenly aware of Roy’s dual existence. Where the technician sees an object, Roy presents a subject. Replicants are designed as tools, but any sufficiently advanced mind is indistinguishable from humanity. Roy carries in his mind the experiences and friends giving shape to his life. He also carries the acute knowledge of his existential limits. He and the other replicants want more life.
Roy confronts Tyrell (Joe Turkel), “the god of biomechanics,” in a masterful sequence. “Can the maker repair what he makes” is the challenge posed by the replicant. The prodigal son returns to his creator, who expresses a litany of biological limits before issuing a line a placating reason (“The light that shines twice as bright burns half as long.”). His creation has done extraordinary things and, for this, he is proud. The maker has no deeper meaning, no life to offer his creation. Roy kisses Tyrell, but this is no kiss of Judas. The embrace symbolises nothing in the way of betrayal, but rather signals the overcoming of the replicant’s creator. Roy gouges out Tyrell’s eyes. The death of God. But all of this is academic. Unable to secure his desire, Roy is thrown back into his own limits. To borrow Tyrell’s motto: More human than human.
Witness to this is J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), a genetic designer at Tyrell Corporation giving shelter to the fugitive replicants. Pris (Daryl Hannah) plants herself outside of his building, manipulating her way into Sebastian’s apartment. Sebastian displays a generalised good will. A glandular condition gives him an appearance beyond his age. “Accelerated decrepitude,” as Pris has it. Sebastian recognises his new acquaintances, though welcomes them all the same. Having worked on the Nexus-6 line, he knows something of their capabilities. They face the same existential problem, which is how Roy convinces Sebastian to lead him to Tyrell. The group represents an underclass within the logic of the narrative. When Deckard is first enlisted to track the fugitive Nexus-6, his boss, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh), reminds him “if you’re not cop, you’re little people.” That Sebastian treats Roy and Pris as other subjects sets him apart. Tyrell marvels at his genetic achievement, the eye technician sees his handiwork, and Deckard sees a target.
Despite having had a “bellyful of killing,” Deckard is brought in to hunt down the rogue Nexus-6. It’s worth noting that replicants were only made illegal on Earth after a mutiny. He’s irresolute about the job, but his position regarding replicants is clear. They are, in his words, like any other machine: when they’re a benefit, they aren’t his problem. Roy and his group are then cast as detriment. To what, exactly, can only be inferred. Bryant refers to replicants as “skinjobs,” bringing to the surface what lies barely concealed within the economy of the film. Replicants are, firstly, a source of slave labour. They provide manual labour for off-work colonies, a distant reality for rain-soaked Los Angeles.
Secondly, they are a reminder of our very obsolescence. Being “more human than human” indicates their material superiority over their creators. Keeping them in menial work maintains the distance needed to ignore the obvious physiological heritage. The more human they are, the more they represent an overcoming of humanity. The lack of emotional development in-built to the four-year lifespan prevents these similarities from becoming too striking. These are, or so we are meant to believe, far from machines of loving grace.
Deckard’s approach to the job is one of cool detachment. His ex-wife, as the excised voiceover tells us, called him sushi, for cold fish. This is bad writing. Fortunately, Harrison Ford’s performance makes this clear with every frame. His demeanour is one of callous professionalism. Nonetheless, Ford manages to play out the inner turmoil experienced by Deckard as the film progresses. The single most striking frame in the film comes after he shoots Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), one of the escaped Nexus-6, in the back as she runs. Deckard stands over the body, disgust and dismay leaking out through his otherwise stoic features. At this point, a consciousness is dawning. One which suggests an understanding that his job is to hunt what only wants to live. This struggle works its way into the remainder of the film but is not uncomplicated.
Rachel (Sean Young) is an experiment. She is introduced as an employee of the Tyrell Corporation. As an indulgence to Tyrell, Deckard runs her through the Voight-Kampff empathy test. He discovers that she is a replicant, one programmed with memories (those of Tyrell’s niece). Rachel doesn’t know. When she first confronts Deckard to prove her humanity, he mocks her by recounting some of those memories, things that nobody else should know. This implantation of memories is an exploitation, a grafting of temporal extension on to what the Corporation and its customers view only as a commodity. The ostensible effect is to foster an emotional life, to bring replicants closer to humanity despite their limited lifespans.
Rachel is, for Deckard, initially human, though, as soon as the illusion is broken, he affects a shift in reference from “she” to “it” in conversation with Tyrell. After killing Zhora, Deckard is ambushed by Leon. The replicant overpowers the bounty hunter, knocking his gun away. “Painful to live in fear, isn’t it,” Leon challenges. Before he can gouge out Deckard’s eyes, Rachel collects the gun and kills Leon. She is overwhelmed by the experience, shaking even as she returns with Deckard to his apartment. When she tries to leave, he slams the door shut and blocks her way, before sexually assaulting her. This scene makes the love-conquers-all ending of the theatrical release all the more troubling. Deckard treats Rachel like an object. Whatever internal struggles he has about killing replicants doesn’t carry over into his relationship with the living. In that moment, she is a benefit to him.
Blade Runner is never better than when Roy Batty is on the screen. Rutger Hauer delivers his most famous, and certainly among his best, performances as the leader of the rogue Nexus-6. Roy knows he’s dying and pursues his goal with ruthless monomania. Despite this ruthlessness, he is not entirely callous. He struggles with the fact that his friends are being killed, each death playing across his face in a spasm of sorrow. As Deckard infiltrates Sebastian’s apartment, he is attacked, and almost overcome, by Priss. The blade runner is approaching his limits. He kills her. Shortly thereafter, Roy returns. He senses something awry and quickly finds the body of Priss. As before, Roy despairs over the death of his friend. It is in these moments that he most sets himself apart from Deckard. The film builds to this final confrontation between hunter and hunted. That Deckard is outmatched is immediately demonstrated. Roy neither stalks nor flees his hunter but runs circles around him. What’s clear is that Deckard has no chance.
What sets the two apart, however, is more than just physical prowess. With the exception of the shot following his assassination of Zhora, Deckard never seriously grapples with his task. It’s evident he finds it distasteful, though this distaste doesn’t carry over into his treatment of Rachel or the remaining Nexus-6. Replicants are still just machines. Roy, in striving for his survival, and that of his friends, grapples with life and death. That he is prey means death is overwhelmingly the expectation. He is designed to die before ever having a chance to live. It’s this that sets him apart from Deckard and the rest of humanity.
Roy is perfectly manufactured towards some purpose that precludes living. Deckard, outmatched, hangs from the ledge of a building. Roy pursues, coming to stand over him. “Quite an experience to live in fear.” In his final act, Roy saves Deckard. The “tears in rain” monologue is legendary, rightly so. It’s an elegant formulation of what Roy and his friends are fighting for. It’s what the film is about. As Roy recounts his memories, he recounts his life. In this moment, he is more human than human. Painful to live in fear, isn’t it? But, then again, who doesn’t?