Do androids dream of electric sheep? This question–the title of Philip K. Dick’s novel that serves as the basis for 1982’s Blade Runner–becomes the film’s central thesis, as android bounty hunter Rick Deckard is tasked with bringing in six Nexus-6 androids that have gone on the lam. Meanwhile, Deckard meets and eventually falls for an android himself, and he begins to question whether these androids (known as replicants) can actually feel empathy and love.
Directed by Ridley Scott, Blade Runner was a complex vision of the future that had never been seen before in cinema: in 2019, with the world in environmental collapse, technology has become both advanced and retrofitted to available machinery; a majority of the population lives in squalor while wealthier members of society are escaping into space. While we’re just two years off from the year the film is set in and our world isn’t in such an advanced (or dilapidated) state, it’s not difficult to envision 2050 looking like Los Angeles does in this movie.
Set in a perpetually raining Los Angeles that has seemingly merged with Asian culture, Blade Runner posits a bleak vision for the future–where replicants indistinguishable from human beings exist but none of the technological advances have actually served to improve the populace’s lives but further enrich gigantic corporations instead. Some of these elements seem remarkably prescient, given the increasing globalization of culture and development, commodification, and exclusivity rights of technologies (particularly medicines) by giant corporations. Even the influx of online social networks have brought a sense of depersonalization where our virtual selves may be considered more “real” than our actual biological and biographical selves. Maybe we have become the replicants online that were banned on Earth in Blade Runner for that very reason: if an artificial construct becomes indistinguishable from the actual, where does that leave the actual?
But this is highfalutin postmodernist philosophy being thrown around in an introduction of an essay on why I find Blade Runner a perfect movie, so let’s stick to the subject at hand instead of spinning off in esoteric discussions of the metaphysical ramifications of androids. After all, Blade Runner is a sleek, stylish sci-fi flick with interesting characters, an intriguing story, and is one of the best neo-noir films ever made, transposed onto a genre that hasn’t been seen since Godard’s Alphaville.
Blade Runner – A Perfect Movie
About that last point: Blade Runner is a noir-ish detective story. The detective story has been a classic mainstay in Western literature and film since the late 19th century, when one of the world’s most famous fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes, was first introduced (pedants can point to earlier examples of the detective genre going back to the mid-19th century, but let’s try to keep this simple for the sake of the argument, shall we?). The detective story–and character–is both a writer’s dream and nightmare: being able to focus your story around a hyper-observant figure whose main goal in any story is to uncover the very plot you’re writing (and reading) make detectives great narrators and window characters; writing a truly intriguing mystery to uncover, however, is terribly difficult.
Blade Runner sidesteps this latter problem by making the mystery not about the escaped replicants but about what constitutes being alive. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is more interested in waxing philosophic about the nature of humanity and what makes somebody a “person” than he is about whodunit (after all, we know “whodunit”–these darn loose replicants!). This also enables the film to make Deckard’s hunting and confrontations of these replicants more action-based instead of intellectual. While Sherlock was great at uncovering mysteries, you don’t remember the awesome fights he had with his antagonists–mostly because he didn’t have them (that was the police’s job). Blade Runner makes its central mystery about whether or not the replicant Deckard has fallen for, Rachael (Sean Young), “human” enough for him to love–and (as the film scintillatingly hints at) whether Deckard himself is a replicant. The central mystery of Blade Runner is of the self.
But about these replicants: they are purely dynamic fictional characters of their own. Thanks to the magic of movies, we aren’t bound to just following Deckard around but jump back and forth between him and the replicants he’s hunting. The most memorable of them, Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Darrell Hannah), seem like angry and confused children who wonder why they were made to be stronger and smarter than any human being but were doomed to short lives. The most memorable speech in the film is given by Roy, who sadly states the paradoxical nature of such a life, just before his own on-screen death: “I‘ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” The film lets the viewer know that these aren’t just mindless beep-boop robots but creations with depth and even soul, who want nothing more than to keep living. By the end of the film, even Deckard sees this as he absconds with Rachael to live further than she’d been programmed to.
The film is an aesthetic treat, as well: it accomplishes building a futuristic world that also seems familiar and lived-in to the audience; the soundtrack (by new age pioneer Vangelis) provides ambiance that serves as soundtrack and compliment to this future; Ridley Scott–always the consummate director–controls the tone of the film like a well-tuned fiddle, showing constraint for atmosphere and creating a visual dynamic that, being both neo-noir and science fiction, is both classic and groundbreaking. You could watch Blade Runner with the sound off and still enjoy how he lights a scene, frames a shot, and keeps its visual grammar consistent throughout. It’s a true vision by a visionary director.
But despite its futuristic trappings, people are still people (and replicants are people, as well): Deckard is a shambling and lonely alcoholic; Rachael is an insecure and often frightened young woman; Roy is dominating and fiercely fighting for his survival. Even if the rest of the world plunged into the future, human (and replicant) nature is what it is: sloppy, self-interested, and always wanting to see another day.
Some may complain of the film’s pacing, but those people may also not be familiar with the genre that Scott drew from for his inspiration: film noir–crime stories that fit neatly into three-act structures whose characters slowly reveal their true nature, moments of shock that punctuate the lulls, and plots that build to climaxes. In 1982, this sort of film wasn’t expected; indeed, Scott was walking on new narrative terrain. “Sci-fi” movies before this were either basic “a monster/alien/entity terrorizes and kills, people fight against it” stories or relatively boring speculative stories in far-flung locales or wildly technological scenarios where the protagonists acted nearly as robotic and controlled as the devices they controlled.
In Blade Runner, the sci-fi genre was mashed into the noir detective story and played it straight: our protagonist isn’t flawless, this future is very flawed, and our “monsters” are creatures of our own making that just want to live. It’s difficult to even see them as monsters: they are simply too smart for their own purpose and too self-aware to submit. Like humans, replicants can’t see the big picture–particularly when that big picture is out to destroy them.
This film is also a victim of its own success: having been so ahead of its time, in 2017 modern audiences may miss out at the novelty and originality of Blade Runner. It has been so often copied, replicated, and been the basis for other future gritty sci-fi films that someone who had never seen this film before today may wonder what the fuss is all about. And like all good things, its novelty may be lost on future generations due to this. After all, the day after Prometheus brought fire down from the gods, he probably looked around at everyone’s campfires and wondered when the accolades were going to come pouring in.
In 1982, Blade Runner was lost on audiences: a box office disappointment, it was sent out into the home video market, hoping to turn a profit. And then something strange happened: it began to be recognized as the truly remarkable film it is. Genre fans hailed it as a great sci-fi/noir film, its visuals were studied (and then copied) by future filmmakers, and its original approach to the genre became the basis for decades’ worth of sci-fi films to come.
I’m a sci-fi fan: I love the genre, both good and bad. I love the novelty in it especially since, like the detective story, it’s a difficult genre to produce, especially on film. While it may be the film that launched a thousand sci-fi flicks in its wake, Blade Runner continues to stand out among them all for its originality, technical finesse, philosophical mystery, and atmosphere. Unlike tears in the rain, once you’ve seen it, Blade Runner is unforgettable science fiction. In a genre where it’s easy to err more than find a hit, this film bats .1000 and is a perfect movie.