Blade Runner: A Retrospective

Article by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2000

This article appeared in Issue 19 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine

Blade Runner Box Art

Looking back at science fiction genre during the Eighties, one film prominently stands out as a modern classic-- "Blade Runner". No other science fiction film from this decade has been analyzed, debated, and dissected more than Ridley Scott's unconventional blending of film noir and sci-fi speculation. However, like the audience ennui that greeted Fritz Lang's now-classic "Metropolis" back in 1927 (including a scathing review written by sci-fi author H.G. Wells), "Blade Runner" suffered the wrath of critics and a lack of interest from audiences when it was originally released in 1982. Turned off by the film's slow-moving plot, viewers ascribed a number of unfavorable labels to describe the film, from 'dull' to 'esoteric'.

However, in the years following its unprofitable initial release, a groundswell of interest earned "Blade Runner" the distinction as being one of the more influential science fiction films of the late Twentieth century, especially after the release of the Director's Cut in 1992. For example, numerous pundits have pointed out the influence of the film's 'cyberpunk dystopia' setting, which presented a future Los Angeles as the product of the convergence of concrete, technology, and immorality. Adding to this the high contrast lighting and anachronistic set-pieces of Forties film noir, "Blade Runner" has forever influenced the production design paradigm of science fiction films, even to this day, as seen in "Dark City" and the more recent "The Matrix".

Issue 19 of Frontier

And though the images presented in "Blade Runner" have been both powerful and influential, it is the film's narrative that proves to be most intriguing, rich in allegory and cloaked in metaphor. Though the story was set in the rain-drenched streets of Los Angeles in the 21st century, in many respects, "Blade Runner" is a timeless tale that speaks to the human condition, on matters of existence and mortality.

Replicants and the Human Condition

"More human than human" is our motto.

Central to the story of "Blade Runner" are 'replicants', a slave-class of artificially created beings. A product of the Tyrell Corporation, replicants are relegated to an existence of subservience, carrying out tasks too hazardous (such as mining) or menial (such as prostitution) for human beings on off-world colonies. Despite their second class status, these genetically engineered beings are in many ways superior to humans, such as being endowed with greater strength and intellect. However, in order to maintain a semblance of control, replicants were granted a maximum life span of four years and implanted with false memories to further solidify their subservience. Unfortunately, it seems that the replicants were designed too well, as some of them have been able to develop emotions and sentience, which has led to a number of bloody replicant revolts. Consequently, they are banned on Earth, and any replicants found trying to infiltrate into human society are 'retired' by specialized law enforcement officers known as 'blade runners'.

Replicants are like any other machine - they're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem.

Harrison Ford

The central character of "Blade Runner" is Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a world weary blade runner who is involuntarily pulled out of retirement to track down four replicants on the loose in Los Angeles: Pris (Daryl Hannah), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), Leon Kowalski (Brion James), and their leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). However, as Deckard moves along further in his investigation and retires the fugitive replicants one-by-one, he comes to understand the desires and emotions that motivate his targets, which are not unlike his own.

The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long - and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.

Sean Young

Led by Batty, the replicants seek 'more life', hoping to break beyond the confines of their inflexible four year life span. They break into the offices of the Tyrell Corporation in a bid to find out their incept (creation) dates (to understand how much time they have left) and to ask their creator, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), for an extension on their short lives. In seeking to go beyond their own limitations, cheating death and finding the secret to immortality, the replicants are an embodiment of the fleetingness of the human condition-- a point driven home to Deckard in the roof-top battle he has with Batty in the film's climax. As he watches Batty shutdown as a result of having 'no more time', Deckard comes to understand that his own desire for survival is no different than that of the replicants he has 'retired'.

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 Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Deckard then acts upon this newfound perspective by helping Rachael (Sean Young), an advanced replicant prototype, escape from possible 'retirement'. Deckard first meets her in Tyrell's office, and she is almost able to pass the Voight-Kampff machine, a lie detector-like device used for identifying replicants. At first, Rachael herself does not realize that she is a replicant, on account of having been implanted with the memories of Mr. Tyrell's niece. However, in her dealings with Deckard, she comes to understand her true origins and her ultimate destiny. And though Rachael is essentially an artificial construct, Deckard sees her as more than merely a collection of genetically engineered tissue and programming-- Rachael also has the very human desires for survival, identity, and growth, and as a result, is deserving of 'more life'.

Are these questions testing whether I'm a replicant or a lesbian, Mr. Deckard?

Who was Deckard?

Harrison Ford

One of the most noticeable changes between the 1982 original theatrical version and the Director's Cut released ten years later was the fate of its protagonist, Deckard. The ending of the original version was upbeat, with Deckard escaping with the Rachel to Canada and proverbially 'living happily ever after'. However, in the Director's Cut, the ending was left more open-ended, with the Deckard and Rachel boarding the elevator in Deckard's apartment building, the elevator doors closing and their fate unknown.

But an even more intriguing aspect of the Director's Cut was new evidence suggesting that Deckard was himself a replicant, which would further bolster both the irony and thematic subtext of the story. Much of the evidence was provided in the original theatrical release, but the implications of this evidence were not made clear until the inclusion of a key scene in the Director's Cut. The key scene being referred to, of course, is the 'unicorn dream sequence', which adds a new level of interpretation to the film's ending. At the time of the original release, this dream sequence raised concerns from studio execs that it would make the film too 'artsy' or 'abstruse' for mainstream audiences, and so it was left on the cutting room floor.

The Unicorn dream

During his investigation, Deckard learns that replicants are provided implanted memories, and he uses this fact to help Rachael understand the truth about her origins by quoting one of the memory vignettes that were programmed into her. Likewise, Gaff (Edward James Olmos), the mysterious police officer that has been following Deckard around throughout the investigation, seems to know about Deckard's unicorn dream when he leaves an origami unicorn outside of Deckard's apartment at the end of the film. The only way that Gaff could have known about Deckard's private thoughts would be if Deckard was a replicant, and that the unicorn dream was one of the standard memory implants that he possessed.

Edward James Olmos

Viewed in this context, a number of clues concerning Deckard's true nature can be seen throughout the film:

If Deckard actually was a replicant, as the Director's Cut suggests, then this final twist is laced with irony, as Deckard, who was reasonably sure of his own 'humanity' at the beginning of the film, finds that he ultimately has much more in common with those he has killed.

Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is, to be a slave.

A Timeless Classic

Eighteen years after it was released, "Blade Runner" continues to be a landmark film in the annals of science fiction. While many will praise the film for its bleak view of the twenty-first century where the marvels of technological advances exist alongside the decay of urban sprawl, praise is also deserving for how it envisages the wonder and meaning of the human condition. Through Deckard's eyes, "Blade Runner" illustrates how memories, emotions, and desires form the pastiche called consciousness, and how the desire to break free of our confines, whether they be physical or spiritual, defines our humanity.

It's too bad she won't live! But then again, who does?

Images courtesy of Warner Brothers. All rights reserved.


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