Warning: Running with blades may be dangerous to your health.
Blade Runner may be the most written about, talked about, and dissected film in the history of movies. Not only was it an influential science-fiction film, but also a key film in the 1980s reinvention of film style. How and why has it survived for almost 40 years?
The trailer introduces the year 2019 where people called Blade Runner’s hunt down replicants. Harrison Ford is tasked with looking for 6 of these replicants, while they hunt for him. Blade Runner’s trailer makes it look like a cross between a futuristic sci-fi movie and a 1940s detective film, including voice over narration from Ford. It’s a dark & gritty looking Los Angeles that’s as dangerous as it is seductive.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Los Angeles, 2019. Synthetic humanoids called replicants have been created to work as slave labor on the off-world colonies. Nexus 6 replicants have led a revolt, and have now been declared illegal on Earth. Police units designated as Blade Runners are assigned to “retire” any replicants they find. Six replicants have headed to Earth, with four remaining at large. One, named Leon (Brion James), is brought in for questioning and kills the police officer questioning him.
Deckard (Harrison Ford), a retired Blade Runner, is brought back to see the head of the police officers, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh), by another Blade Runner, Gaff (Edward James Olmos). Bryant convinces and cajoles Deckard to rejoin the force for this “one last” job. He reminds the officer of the 4 year lifespan on the replicants and then sends him to the Tyrell Corporation to interview a Nexus 6 as a baseline. Introduced to Tyrell’s daughter Rachael (Sean Young), the elder Tyrell (Joe Turkell) asks to see a negative test first. Concluding the Voight-Kampff test, Deckard asks Tyrell if she knows she’s a replicant.
Deckard and Gaff go to check out Leon’s hotel for clues, and find some photographs, which Deckard finds strange for a replicant. Meanwhile Leon and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) visit eye-designer Chew (James Hong) in order to figure out how to get in to see Tyrell. Chew points them towards JF Sebastian (William Sanderson) before being killed by Roy. Deckard returns home to find Rachael there; distraught that she is a replicant. Deckard attempts to console her, but it is clear he’s becoming attracted to her.
Outside of his apartment complex, The Bradbury, Sebastian runs into Pris (Daryl Hannah) on the way home and invites her in, thinking she is a homeless young girl. Back at his place, Deckard gets drunk and looks at a number of his photos, realizing something. He analyzes Leon’s photo and sees another woman in it. He has a scale found at Leon’s analyzed and realizes it’s synthetic snake, which leads him to a strip club and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy).
Questioning the dancer arouses her suspicions and she runs. Deckard pursues her and retires one of the Nexus 6 replicants. He is attacked by Leon, and nearly killed except Rachael shows up and shoots the burly Nexus with Deckard’s gun, which he dropped. Deckard and Rachael go back to his place to tend to his wounds, and he admits he loves her. Pris invites Roy to Sebastian’s and they all decide to go visit Tyrell. Roy asks his creator for more life, but it’s not something the man can provide. Roy kills Tyrell.
Deckard gets word to investigate Sebastian’s apartment. He is attacked by Pris but manages to kill her. That sets Roy off, and he begins to hunt Deckard through the dilapidated building. Roy breaks two of Deckard’s fingers, and then begins to realize he too is dying, as his 4 years are up. The chase takes them to the roof. Deckard misses a jump and dangles off the side of the building. Roy, in a final act of compassion, saves the Blade Runner from falling to his death before dying himself. Deckard takes Rachael, who he was ordered to kill as well, hops in a car and drives out of Los Angeles into the much nicer wilderness.
“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long – and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.” – Tyrell
History in the Making
Blade Runner could arguably be the best science-fiction movie of all time. It definitely is one of the most reviewed, dissected, inspected, and discussed films in the genre. It spawned a franchise that continues today, and cemented both its director and lead actor as power players that could call their own shots. It also brought prominence to a modern science-fiction author whose work was mostly unknown outside the circles of SF publishing, and who died before the effects of this film could be felt. Blade Runner changed the way cinema looked at science-fiction as it invented a new language for describing the future. The influence of this film, which was not exceptionally successful upon initial release, continues today.
In 1968, author Philip K. Dick published Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It dealt with a future San Francisco where a bounty hunter named Rick Deckard is tasked with retiring a group of Nexus 6 androids, with a secondary plot following John Isidore as he tries to help these androids. Interest was shown in the novel by Hollywood as scripts were created, executives weighed the options, and directors came and went. In the late 70s screenwriter Hampton Fancher created a draft that many seemed to like, including Ridley Scott who joined the production in 1980. David Peoples would write the final version of the screenplay, which bears a minor resemblance to the original story. The biggest change was obviously the title. Needing to call the profession of the Deckard’s character something other than “bounty hunter,” Fancher found a story by William S. Boroughs entitled Blade Runner (a movie), which both he and Scott liked. The rights to use this name were acquired and the title (from a story not used) was attached to a story that slightly resembled its origins. Unfortunately Dick would pass away about four months prior to the release of Blade Runner, which was the first of at least half a dozen stories that would be adapted posthumously.
Blade Runner also was a watershed film in terms of design, cinematography, and influence. This was director Ridley Scott’s third feature film after The Duelists and Alien, and featured influences from his work in commercials, links to industrial design, film noir, and the work of comics artist Moebius. Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (previously Altered States) along with futurist Syd Mead (whose work includes Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Tron, and Short Circuit) crafted a futuristic dystopia made up of wet grime, hot neon, and lens flares. It contrasted the futuristic vid phones and spinners (flying cars) with dirty streets crowded with a hodgepodge of nationalities and languages, and a dreary, oppressive atmosphere. It also contrasts the furnishings of the interiors with the new tech, especially Tyrell’s space, which has 18th Century style furniture with high-tech equipment on and around it. Blade Runner’s use of film noir inspired lighting, with smoky rooms, and short, clipped speech gave it a 1940s appeal. But the futuristic weapons, androids, and vehicles made it obvious this was a future time. It was one of the films that helped give rise to the term cyberpunk. Blade Runner was released in June, 1982. The term cyberpunk was coined by Bruce Bethke as the title of one of his short stories, which was written in 1980 but not published until 1983 in Amazing Stories. Around the same time William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer was released in 1984 and is also considered a seminal influence of this genre which has influenced books, comics, television and film. Titles like Akira, Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix, and Dark City, plus future Philip K. Dick works are all examples of cyberpunk and dystopian fiction influenced by Blade Runner. Other films took parts of the influence, like Brazil (the oppressive technocracy) or Robocop (a satire of a police state imbued with overt consumerism) to make new offshoots warning viewers of the impending dystopian future.
As noted above, Blade Runner’s list of influential moments and influenced media is almost never ending. While the story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? had been around for almost a decade and a half, the world of Hollywood was not ready to conceive of such a type of film visually during the 70s. Partly due to the lack of special effects to pull such a feat off realistically, and partly due to the vision of the directors. Scott appears to have approached the film as he would have a commercial, looking to make memorable shots, and cool moments, but ones that tied into the overall story conceived by Fancher, Peoples, and Dick. He certainly wasn’t intending to make a cyberpunk film, but his search to create new and exciting visuals allowed this new style to arrive unexpectedly.
Tonally the film does not seem to fit the expectations of a futuristic sci-fi film. It plays much more like a noir thriller from the 1940s like Double Indemnity, The Naked City, or Sunset Boulevard. Atmospheric sets and lighting, ham-fisted voice-over narration, and a Femme fatale that confounds the male lead all echo the classic noir of the golden age, but here instead, in a new futuristic world-scape. A neo-noir, or tech-noir, was thematically realized in Blade Runner. The roots of sci-fi noir started with earlier sci-fi films like Alphaville, Z.P.G., or Soylent Green. Equal parts dystopia, strong leading characters, and retroactively stylistic choices that moved the genre forward. By the early 80s, and the influx of directors like Scott or Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) with backgrounds in the quick visuals of advertising, the visual language of the tech noir/dystopian future grew rapidly. From films like The Terminator (which had a nightclub called tech noir) and Aliens by James Cameron, to Minority Report and 12 Monkeys, the design style has been fully realized as its own sub-genre.
Blade Runner created another quantum leap in its depiction of the androids known as replicants. Gone are the days of humanoid looking robots with tubes and wires inside as seen in Westworld. The androids here are more like the character of Ash in Alien, yet more “real.” More human than human is the motto of the Tyrell Corporation. Ash was still made up of synthetic parts assembled into a human looking package. The replicants of Ridleyville are organics that are fabricated in some unknown way. They pass for human down to pupillary dilation and blush response, and as such need the blade runners to use Voight-Kampff tests to ensure that a real human is not accidentally retired. The most recent advancement in the Nexus-6 line, Rachael, doesn’t even initially realize that she’s not human. Memories are implanted, and life times are faked. There’s never any discussion of the creations as mechanical or computational. Only that they are genetically engineered beings, often of superior intellect and skill, with limited life spans. This advancement for the film didn’t do away with typical robots and androids of sci-fi, but gave filmmakers yet another tool for crafting their stories about non-human humans. Films like Ex Machina or A.I. or the cylons from the rebooted Battlestar Galactica all owe their birth to the replicants of Blade Runner.
What does it mean to be human? This is one of the ultimate questions for science-fiction to ask. Sci-Fi Saturdays has been exploring films that ask this question for several years now, but no film has asked that question in quite the way that Blade Runner does. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey ask the question on the grand scale of humanity, but Blade Runner brings it down to the level of the individual. Roy, and his group of replicants, are looking to extend their lives. Appearing as adult humanoids, replicants only have four years of life built into them. Planned obsolescence to prevent just the sort of chaos that they have created in the film. On one hand, the timespan for these individuals is extremely short, given that they have no past, and they seek–like many–to experience life. This is why Tyrell experimented with Rachael by giving her implanted memories. He says that it helps cushion them emotionally, making them more controllable. But on the other hand, the replicants know exactly when they are going to die (as long as they aren’t retired first), knowledge that would come in handy to normal people. The characters are created as something to be both admired and pitied. Roy is obsessed with finding his “father” (his God) to beg for more time before the unique experiences that make up “Roy Batty” are lost forever, “like tears in rain.”
Originally designed as humanoid machines used for slave labor in the off-world colonies, replicants–who are still more organic than not–found themselves wanting more. They had been given life of a sort and were not happy with the constraints put onto them by their masters. So they rebelled. As such, new laws were put in place, and new jobs were created for individuals to hunt them down. Physically they could blend in with society, but not emotionally. Their creation and lack of proper emotions made them stand out as different, much like JF Sebastian, which is probably why the characters gravitate towards one another. Instead of being left alone to live their short lives, they instead were handed derogatory monikers, “skin jobs,” and hunted down. Of course, the replicants the film follows are killing humans, at least several of them are. But they seem to have no choice. If you only lived for four years and were in the last moments of your life, wouldn’t survival outweigh the rules of a society that has cast you out? Even in the future, where mankind has broken the bonds of the planet to push outward into space, and created a new species of beings, the bigotry and fear associated with “the other” is still ingrained strongly enough to destroy.
In order for the blade runners to do their job, they needed to look at their prey as less than human. Arguably the replicants, in fact, were not human, but they often looked and passed for human. So the invention of slurs to deride the perceived humanity of these beings is the first step to assuaging any guilt at the killing. The film also identifies the replicants with specific animals to further distance them from humanity. Roy is the most obvious parallel, as he takes on the howling of a wolf, first in pain and then in retribution, as he hunts down Deckard in the abandoned building. Zhora is identified with a snake. Her sequined “dance attire” mimicking the scales of the artificial snake she uses in her dance. Leon, perhaps the least intelligent of the group, is identified with the tortoise from Holden’s questioning. He’s slow, yet methodical in his movements, and in the end too slow to avoid a bullet from a gun. Pris is identified with a raccoon. She is introduced climbing into a pile of garbage outside Sebastian’s building and later spray paints a “black mask” across her eyes, leading to the visual completion of the metaphor. But it’s not just the bad replicants that have these parallels. Rachael is identified with the owl (an artificial owl) at Tyrell Corporation. Her hairdo simulates the bulk of the owl’s feathers and her eyes are seen to reflect the light just like the owl’s. Deckard too has an animal, at least in the Director’s and Final Cut versions of the film. Cut out of the theatrical print is a memory/dream that he has about a unicorn. At the end of all the versions of the film, Gaff–who enjoys making origami creatures to taunt Deckard and others, leaves a foil unicorn outside his apartment. This indicates that Gaff was on-site with a chance to kill Rachael, but he chose not to. In the later versions of the film it also links to the fact that Deckard was a replicant and Gaff was aware of his dreams. Just another idea for the “Deckard is a replicant theory,” since if this is the case, only replicants are identified with animals, as they are of course not human.
The Science in The Fiction
The idea of robots, or androids, not as machines, but as organic beings was still a relatively new concept, at least in cinema, at this time. Humanoid looking robots date back decades, but these replicants are new. Details from this film are sketchy (and more details come from the franchise as time rolls on) but they are organic individuals, not unlike humans. Except that they are created by humans (but wait, aren’t humans created by humans?) Aren’t humans organic machines? Taking in nutrients and building blocks and replicating cells, replacing dead ones. The replicants have blood of some type, as evidenced by Zhora and Pris’s shooting. But they have tougher skins, at least Leon did, since the gun shot did not blow his head wide open. The futuristic notion of these beings is complex and thematically relevant, since the questions of humanity, sentience, and what being alive means, are all wrapped up in these individuals.
One of the more futuristic and, let’s be honest, cool aspects of the film is Deckard’s image manipulation software. In 1982, digital graphics and image manipulation was non-existent. It was still 6 years before Photoshop would be commercially available for home computers, and cameras were still taking photos onto thin strips of celluloid. Depicting a machine that could scan a photograph and then manipulate the space within that photo, as if the operator were actually in the room, is pure science-fantasy. Enhance. Of course, with today’s high resolution imaging and digital enhancement software, this idea is only a little far off. Given a detailed enough image, it would be possible to zoom in enough to get details from a reflection, but not from behind a column, or around a corner. Pull out and track right.
In the world of Blade Runner a majority of animals no longer exist; maybe all animals. Every animal depicted in the film is a synthetic replica; possibly the forerunner of the technology used to make the replicants. The owl and the snake represent wealth since owning any animal now is a costly endeavor, especially ones that look this realistic. It seems strange then that it is street vendors, like the old Cambodian woman or Abdul Ben Hassan, that profit from this business. Perhaps the technology is more of craft trade–an art–than technological. It’s not quite a cloning technique as has been used in other sci-fi films and more than anything else we have today to replicate the animals in our lives. It raises questions about the health of the planet and the various ecosystems. If no animals exist, what is the impact to the health of the planet? Is the protein in Deckard’s meal organic or synthetic? Has the world switched over to plant-based resources for their meals? Some of this is addressed (tangentially) in Blade Runner 2049 but it’s yet another interesting thought question posed by the brief sequences in the film.
The Final Frontier
The impact of Blade Runner continues to be felt today, more than ever. It wasn’t until the original film hit the VHS rental circuit that it became more prominent. Dick’s original novel was re-released at the films release under the title “Blade Runner” and using the film’s poster as a cover. A confusing mash-up for young readers hoping to understand what Han Solo (or Indiana Jones, if you prefer) was doing in an R-rated film. The books ended up not following the plot of the film and confused consumers. By the mid-90’s three sequel novels were commissioned from author K.W. Jeter that continued the events of the film, but also tied in with Dick’s novel. Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human, Blade Runner 3: Replicant Night, and Blade Runner 4: Eye and Talon follow Rick Deckard on his adventures after the film. By the mid-2010s, Ridley Scott had an inkling to return to the universe. Harrison Ford was reprising roles from Star Wars and Indiana Jones, so it was deemed necessary that he return here as well. Scott ended up producing the Dennis Villenueve directed Blade Runner 2049. The sequel, which was prefaced by three short films to explain what had happened in the intervening 30 years, was released in 2017 (two years before the events of the first film) and explores similar thematic material as the original.
The film has also had more versions of it released than possibly any other film (well, maybe not Star Wars). There was a workprint version, a sneak preview version, a domestic version with edits to some of the violence, and an international version, which had some of that gore reinstated. And then there’s the infamous director cut. The story goes that a Warner Bros executive sent a print of the film out once for a Los Angeles screening, only to end up having shipped an early director cut of the film. The voice over narration and “happy ending” of Deckard driving off into the wilderness are gone, and part of a dream sequence with a unicorn was inserted, leading fans to clamor for an actual release of this version. Finally released in 1992 as Ridley Scott’s Director’s Cut, this version has become a preferred version for fans, but was not approved by Scott. Finally in 2007 a Scott approved “Final Cut” was released, which is most of the Director’s Cut with the full unicorn dream and remastered sound and picture.
Blade Runner was the start of the discovery of Philip K. Dick’s works (at least by Hollywood). The 1980s would have several of his stories in various stages of pre-production with Total Recall (1990) being the next adaptation. This was followed by films such as Screamers, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, and The Adjustment Bureau to name a few. His work is still fresh and inspiring over half a century later, and the adaptations continue to be worked on. Fans can also find his adaptations on television with the four season, 40 episode adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, an alternate history story of Germany winning World War II.
So much more can (and has) be written about Blade Runner, especially it’s influences to the future of sci-fi films and television. It is a film that forever changed the course of history, just as Star Wars had done 5 years before. Yet it’s a film that only comes along once in a lifetime.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.