Blade Runner is not about the cities of the future, but about the human race of the future. This probably seems like heresy when talking about a film which has become to visions of the urban future what J.R.R. Tolkien’s works have become to visions of a heroic past. But now that Blade Runner’s finally been freed from its protracted legacy of postproduction tampering and incompleteness, it’s possible to see the film for what it always was under its dark and glittering skin. We are all, in our own ways, both more and less than human, and life is a matter of compromising between both extremes.
Even if the film's moody cityscapes make it hard to think about anything else in the film—a big part of the reason the movie improves so on repeat viewings, as the initial shock of the visuals gives way to the real story—Blade Runner’s still not so much about the details of what the future will hold, but about how it’ll look and feel. It’s no coincidence that the definitive book on the making of the film is named Future Noir—noir, after all, is about attitude and atmosphere, not forensic precision. Sure, twenty-five years after the film was released, Times Square today looks a whole lot like the ad-splattered urban supersprawl depicted in Blade Runner; that part was easy enough to see coming. What strikes me most about the film now is how its idea of “the future” seems timeless, because it’s rooted not in technical details but mood and emotional color. The future’s always gonna be a sad and beautiful place, no matter what century you’re growing up in.
And so with any future era comes a future human being—one that may well be unrecognizable as human to us. Such things preoccupied Philip K. Dick when he wrote the source novel for the film, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The inspiration for the book had come from reading the diaries of S.S. officers—men who come as close to collectively embodying dehumanization as any group of people ever did. Dick read a passage wherein one of the guards complained about being kept awake at night by “the cries of starving children” and could not help but feel that the person making this complaint somehow fell short of the definition of human that encompassed the rest of us. “It is not human to complain that starving children are keeping you awake,” he told an interviewer in 1982. If The Matrix’s central question was “How do you define real?”, Blade Runner’s was “How do you define humanity?” If it’s the deed that makes the human, then many of us are understandably disqualified. If it’s the biology, that again closes as many doors as it opens. The question isn’t meant to have a definitive answer; it’s meant to be asked and mused over time and again, and this is just one of many ways in which that’s been done.
The opening moments of Blade Runner go a long way towards stacking the deck against anything human. Its vision of 2019 Los Angeles is only marginally behind what we’ve ended up with—an urban hell ringed by fire-belching refineries and lorded over by ziggurat-like megaliths. In one such building, the headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation, “blade runner” Dave Holden (Morgan Paull) sits down to administer what looks like a simple personality test to the slow-witted Leon Kowalski (Brion James). Holden twigs all too late to the realization that Leon’s a “replicant”—a humaniform android, complete with a personality and canned emotional reactions—and gets gutshot under the table for his trouble.
Down below in the rain-splattered and rubbish-strewn streets, ex-blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) finds himself quickly drafted back into service by his former boss, Bryant (dependably grimy M. Emmet Walsh), “the kind of guy who used to call black men ‘niggers’,” as Deckard mused in the now-excised voice-over used in the original print of the film. Leon and three of his compatriots are on Earth illegally, and Leon wants Deckard to pick up where Holden left off hunting them down. Deckard was quit when he came into that office and is twice as quit now, but the only thing that forces him to take the job is the knowledge that without his badge there is no difference between him and his would-be targets. Even without the voice-overs, we can tell he hated this work, hated it because he was good at it, and the last thing a man should take pride in is his ability to destroy.
The test used to distinguish human from replicant—the “Voight-Kampff” test featured in the novel as well—works by gauging the one thing that replicants have the most trouble with: emotional reactions. Deckard’s worried about its efficacy, especially after he goes to Tyrell Corporation head Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and determines that his “daughter”, Rachael (Sean Young), is in fact one of the new Nexus-6 variety like the other escaped replicants. Trapping them with an empathy test seems pointless when the last one to try that trick ended up on life support. The fact that the Nexus-6 models are all the harder to screen out is by itself enough to make Deckard mad, but there’s more: Tyrell provided Rachael with memories garnered from his niece as a way to allow her to better deal with her burgeoning, unprogrammed emotional responses.
Deckard’s incredulous response—“How can it not know what it is?”—could be read multiple ways. Is he annoyed that “it” is too dumb to know any better, or that Tyrell has essentially conspired to keep her from learning this? Probably the latter, given Deckard’s reactions when Rachael approaches him on her own and demands to know the results of the test. His response is to quote back, nuance-for-nuance, a memory that no one else but she should have known, and send her fleeing in tears. And he realizes too late that if “it” looks like a woman and talks like a woman and cries like a woman … then maybe he can respond to it like a woman, even if that’s not what he’d intended.
Deckard’s moody dismay—both with himself, and the possibility that the machines are truly (in Tyrell’s words) “more human than human”—contrasts with the adventures of two other replicants who find solace-of-a-sort with none other than one of their own co-creators. Pris (Daryl Hannah) affects the look and demeanor of a street urchin (“I’m sort of an orphan” she says) to gain the confidence of genetic designer J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson). Sebastian is, quite literally, old before his time: as Pris points out, they have a common problem, that of accelerated decrepitude. J.F. is a withered stick of a man at the tender age of 25, and his newfound friends will be dead in a matter of days no thanks to their built-in four-year lifespans.
The other replicant is Roy Baty (Rutger Hauer)—the escaped replicants’ self-appointed ringleader and the closest thing the movie offers to a nemesis. With his nimbus of silver hair and burning Klaus Kinski-like eyes, he embodies Kahlil Gibran’s line in The Prophet: “What is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?” Evil expresses itself through him as nothing more than the frustrated will to live. Despite having Sebastian lead him directly to Tyrell, his maker, he finds that his god can offer him nothing but regret. “A coding system cannot be revised once established,” Tyrell recites coolly like he’s lecturing a class; this in response to Roy cornering him and snarling “I want more life, ‘Father’.” He has been made as well as could be made—“but not to last,” as Roy quips back. What’s worse: not knowing how long you’ve got, or knowing and realizing what you have is almost nothing at all?
The same quandary plays itself out between Deckard and Rachael as well. After tracking down and “retiring” Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), another of the escapees and an attractive woman to boot, Deckard’s nearly mauled to death by Leon. The way Leon goggles at Zhora’s body from the fringes of the scene is a nice suggestion of how he might well have been as close to her as Roy and Pris have been. And this time it’s Rachael whose actions are pivotal: she picks up Deckard’s gun and shoots Leon in the face right before the former has his skull crushed. It’s not the way Deckard expected to get that much closer to her, but he’ll take whatever he can get, even if she might as well be using his sympathy to milk him for that much more information about her lifespan and memory implants. Then there comes that scene where she takes down her hair and plays Deckard’s piano “beautifully”, his words—irony, that, since her knowing how to play is ostensibly also synthetic. And then there’s the infamous love scene that borders on rape (“Say ‘kiss me’,” Deckard demands of her), which many people have not applauded but which does make it clear that Deckard’s as emotionally stunted as the man-machines he’s after.
Even if Deckard himself isn’t a replicant—a point of speculation raised by fans, director Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford himself—he falls short of being fully human anyway, something that his own archenemy comes to realize as they face off. By the time Deckard closes in on Baty in the ominous ruins of Sebastian’s apartment building, Roy’s lust for life has turned pathological: at one point the replicant shoves a nail through his hand to spur himself on, breaks Deckard’s fingers to keep him from using his gun, and gloats down at Deckard when he’s dangling one-handed over the side of the building. Like Woo-jin, Oh Dae-su’s tormentor in Oldboy, Roy’s discovered that killing his opponent is nothing compared to forcing empathy on him—making him share the same fear that filled every day of his four short years. Unlike Woo-jin, though, Roy realizes that death will overtake them both no matter what, and with a snarl of “Ah, kinship!” he hauls the other man back up onto the rain-splattered roof for a few last words. His speech—“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”—packs a movie’s worth of emotions into only a few words, thanks to Hauer’s delivery. Most important is that these are his own memories, not implants like Rachael’s, proof enough that even a few years’ life can be time enough to live fully.
A friend of mine has been working on and off on a story about what sort of maturity one would develop would that people had a century or more of life. The fact that the replicants only have four years apiece hammers home how little time they have to actually grow up. They’re like adolescents—alternately playful and sulky, and crushed by the emotions that they feel and haven’t been properly equipped to handle. When Pris first runs into J.F.—and in their time throughout—she’s playful with him in a way that we feel could be completely genuine if she wasn’t a hunted animal. Look at how Roy Baty clowns around in J.F.’s lab (itself like a decrepit toy store), or how he goes from predatory to lachrymose when explaining Zhora’s fate to Pris. Baty’s hunting of Deckard at the end, with its nursery-rhyme chant—“Six! Seven! Go to hell or go to heaven!”—is like a child’s game gone grown-up and deadly, just like the lethal hide-and-seek the replicants have been enacting all along with their human playmates. When eminence grise Gaff (Edward James Olmos) congratulates Deckard at the end of the film with “You’ve done a man’s job, sir!”, it’s “man” in the sense of opposing “boy”, not “something other than man”.
No discussion of the movie would be complete without at least some talk of its visuals. The most striking thing about it is how its imagery has not dated in any appreciable way, like 2001 (which, ironically enough, also shows us logos for Pan Am and Bell Tel, even though both are now long gone). The opening cityscapes, the canyons of steel and neon that rise for hundreds of stories, the police “spinners”—none of them ever look less than convincing. Today, effects like this would have been spat out of a computer, but in 1982 the only way to accomplish such a thing was through hands-on blood and sweat. Visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull (also of 2001, not surprisingly) used a slew of special variable-density matte effects and in-camera compositing procedures, all documented in massive detail in an issue of Cinefex. When Scott and his restoration team finally set about putting the long-vaunted final cut into shape, however, they resisted the urge to touch up the effects with CGI; there was no point in trying to repair what had never really been broken in the first place. Even when a matte painting is clearly not that well-integrated with its background, it’s been left intact—it has an organic look of its own, one which would have been foolish to try and clean up.
The turbulent production of the film could fill a book, and in fact did. Paul Sammon’s aforementioned Future Noir made it feel like the fact that they had made any kind of movie at all was some kind of miracle. Dick’s disenchantment with Hollywood’s ideas about science fiction on film inspired an angry essay in which he pilloried Scott’s own Alien as an example of the kind of empty-headed sensation-seeking he feared his novel Sheep was to be shorn down into. But he grew enthusiastic as Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples (the latter also the screenwriter of Unforgiven) submitted progressively more refined drafts, and when he finally sat down to watch a hastily-edited amalgam of incomplete footage, Dick was staggered at how much of what he had imagined had been seemingly plucked out of his head and put on the screen. Unfortunately, he died before the film was released.
Few people were prepared for the end result. Audiences expecting a redux of Ford’s smug and cocky Han Solo or Indiana Jones personas were taken aback by his glum, detached character and winced at his thuggish voice-over delivery (which Ford recorded several instances of to no avail). The graphic violence—trimmed for an R rating, but still potent and disturbing—and ponderous pace of the movie didn’t help either, and a spate of mixed (Roger Ebert) to negative reviews (the ever-acerbic Pauline Kael) served as that many more nails in the coffin lid. Worst of all was the timing: Blade Runner landed in theaters the same month as E.T. and was eaten alive by what proved to be one of the biggest hit films of all time. (Even its Oscar nod for visual effects was lost to Spielberg’s fairy tale from space.)
What helped bring Blade Runner back from its theatrical death sentence was something that would in time prove to be the remaking of the entire movie industry: home video. The Criterion Collection put out a two-disc LaserDisc edition of the film that became a staple best seller (I owned a copy), even at the wallet-killing price of $100 for the full two-disc edition. Word trickled out that what had reached the screen was far from complete, and sure enough in 1992 Warner Brothers correctly sensed how important the film had become and brought out a somewhat-reworked version. The changes themselves were minimal—the voice-over and the tacked-on “happy” ending were gone—but it was still incrementally closer to a finished product, and its mere existence helped legitimize the whole concept of the “director’s cut” as we currently know it.
Nobody plans for a movie to achieve timelessness. It’s something that by and large just happens, a happy accident of fate. Science fiction movies in particular rarely achieve this—they’re all too often limited, like any film, by being a product of their moment in time. The few that do transcend, do so because they have something to say about us that simply doesn’t age. I worry about a day when a movie like Blade Runner becomes irrelevant, because that might well mean the humanity meant to receive it as an audience no longer exists.