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I had a strange thought some time ago. When movies like these come out, they aren’t the events that fans and filmmakers look back on and imagine. They’re movies with little concept of how much they’ll impact the world for the next thirty years and beyond. There is no futuristic city more quintessential than L.A. 2019, which isn’t far from now — but hopefully never comes to pass as it does in Ridley Scott’s apocalyptic cyber-fable.
The idea is so clean it’s almost painful. The story defines to me the beauty in science-fiction film, that of tight ideas which lead down fascinating roads of thought while maintaining and executing on a high concept premise. It isn’t just: “Bounty hunter tracks down and kills humanoid androids — STOP,” making it something like the more recent Surrogates, it’s “Bounty hunter tracks down and kills humanoid androids, an act that impacts the audience and characters on a moral and philosophical level, as these androids are distinguishable to humans only by a bizarre method of interrogation known as Voight-Kampff…”
In a recent interview with Cinemax to look back on Blade Runner during its 30th anniversary year, Ridley Scott revealed that Blade Runner was definitely his most personal film, though he followed that up with a moment of silence and thought and something like, “yeah, that’s it.” I suppose it makes since, not because Scott isn’t known for making films with very personal subjects (in that, he does everything from the Crusades and Columbus to espionage and modern warfare), but because Blade Runner is an emotional film that says quite a lot about humanity and violence — lofty themes atypical of science-fiction in film.
Because this is a sci-fi film, the emotion and that which says quite a lot are delivered in what we could call a non-traditional manner, considering the genres that do deal in these things more often than SF. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, or even character interaction, but there’s an unrelenting brooding about the atmosphere that looks pretty — though thirty years later it does show the construction behind its making — but hits you as a dead end for our kind, a shimmering monument to ourselves that’s choking out life and morality. Above all, it fills us with dread and loneliness, despite, or perhaps because of, the faceless crowds flowing in every direction, and being pelted with endless rain. It’s a perfectly impressionistic environment to house one man’s depressing, dehumanizing journey.
That’s exactly what Blade Runner is, this journey that chips away at Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), making it less of a dramatic tearjerker and more cerebral fare with a genuinely poigniant core. Characters struggle against forces beyond their control, whether it’s death or society (“If you’re not police you’re regular people”), and lose, even though the hero does achieve the dramatic need he establishes at the beginning of the movie.
Blade Runner also works because it’s one of the classic genre-mixers. It combines science-fiction with noir, a formula that’s sustained SF for years and years. In the context of this film, it’s a good blend, as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking hard-boiled is entirely justified in a bleak world where suddenly you can’t be sure of your own identity, and where the sky taunts you to join the “Off-World Colonies,” which I can’t imagine are any better than the ‘Hellscape’ of Los Angeles.
Anime in particular took to this new trope, referencing and embodying the movie in so many titles — but to no better effect than in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which does more than pay lip service to the visuals. In this 2004 sequel to Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking Ghost in the Shell, two police detectives scour the dark underworld of a futuristic Tokyo, maneuvering through yakuza strapped with illegal model cyborgs and the haunting, Gothic locales where minds can be easily lost to remote psychological warfare of the most invasive variety. Questions of humanity and the blur between flesh and metal — what Masamune Shirow refers to as the Man/Machine Interface — rise to the same effect, though in much clunkier, verbose terms.
Elements of Blade Runner have also found homes in America, in the oddest of places — anything from Mass Effect to Batman Begins. Science-fiction is great at capturing the imagination of fans and creators, and Blade Runner stands up there with Star Wars and Star Trek and frankly, has spawned better derivatives, which seem to be more venerating toward the source.
Maybe the greatest problem with the whole “Is Deckard a Replicant” thing is that he dreamt of a unicorn, and not an Electric Sheep. That would’ve solved it, put it down for good. Of course, there’s a bigger problem, that of harping on whether or not he’s a replicant, and proliferating the idea that it actually matters. What is gained from Deckard being a replicant? An idea, but only one that’s supplemental — the Philip K. Dick “aha!” at the end that gives us a notion about the world and the themes of the movie, a mechanic that Christopher Nolan most recently recycled in the ending of Inception. We are not meant to argue one way or the other, because that would be giving validity to something best experienced in its fleeting, epilogue form.
This is an issue of fandom, more specifically that of the science-fiction variety. This is odd because there are plenty of Philip K. Dick books out there with these kinds of endings — I think to Ubik immediately — but because there is no Ubik movie, there is no discussion, and Ubik is left alone as a thought-provoking, satisfying whole. It’s also an issue of medium, then. I think that we as audiences tend to value the literal over the figurative when it comes to movies, which unless established, portray things meant to be taken at face value. We’re seeing and hearing these ‘tangible’ things — they’re solid, concrete. When Deckard picks up that origami — it’s not the idea blending over the physical image and clouding our mind like it should.
This story format bias is interesting, but has only really haunted Blade Runner and a handful of others, as Blade Runner was brave but didn’t make its money back. It’s more of a cult success in line with The Thing and Streets of Fire, to name two movies from around that time, which often gives these movies its staying power. In the case of Blade Runner, it must just be that immortal question, that which is so backwards. In my mind, he’s a replicant insofar as he’s been dehumanized over the arc, but to say that creates a clash of how Scott sees the Android, and how Dick sees it.
In preparation for writing Nazi characters for his Hugo-award winning The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick did extensive and disturbing research, becoming fascinated by how robotic and callous people can be. He drew on that in his creation of the ‘andys’ in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, creating what were essentially empathetically-challenged humans, which Scott takes one step further. The replicants in Blade Runner are sympathetic, some more than others, but in the end, Roy is entirely human. But he’s a replicant. In the end, Deckard is a figurative replicant, but wouldn’t that mean that… he’s human? And besides, he’s also supposedly a replicant for real…?
I suppose it’s more to do with the blurring of the two. It’s not so much where one begins and ends, but that we as people are becoming colder, or have been cold and this city is a mirror, and this is how we can shoot a human woman in the back, in front of the endless crowds.
BLADE RUNNER, 2019
The future of Blade Runner is a recent development with the announcement of a sequel, which is definitely one of those sequels that’s always been ‘possible,’ but never really plausible. On one hand, it’s a shame, as Blade Runner has always felt more in line with great science-fiction literature, and should stand alone as a great story with a beginning, middle, and end, but on the other, this is great news.
Thinking on it, the things that made Blade Runner a true classic could be done again. It’s just… science-fiction in film isn’t a thinking man’s genre, and the current state of SF is best summed up in the Syfy Channel*: “We just don’t give a fuck.” Granted, there are surprises every now and then, and hopefully Blade Runner 2 will surprise us all. If it doesn’t, that’s fine. This is how I view things, after The Thing remake: I love John Carpenter’s The Thing as a fan of film. It’s a great movie with memorable characters and moments that shock and reinforce the bleakness. I love the new The Thing as a fan of general science-fiction because I love the story’s setup, and the things it can do. The Antarctic setting, the monster itself, the infighting — it’s not the best it’s been, but it’s more.
The world of Blade Runner has also had time to develop. Cyberpunk was born in 1982 and died ten years or so later. It saw a lot of classics, like Akira, the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell and its TV series Stand Alone Complex, Strange Days, Deus Ex, and even to some extent the Terminator franchise, though that’s been missing an entirely new world to populate. That’s what Blade Runner 2 can offer right now, when we know so little about it. A world — and if it’s anywhere near the original’s, it’ll be a good day for science-fiction fans.
But we’ll bitch anyway.
(Not that any future plans on this site should be trusted. I’d like to do that but once I said I’d do a retrospective on Mamoru Oshii and then I said I’d do a Ghost in the Shell retrospective and then a Wire recap… Someday)
The troubled production of Blade Runner and the various Cuts of the movie put out over the years by different parties gives credence to the idea that very few of its makers fully grasped exactly what the movie was about. Some argued that Deckard wasn’t a replicant, some preferred ambiguity. In one cut we see that Tyrell wasn’t killed, his replicant was, and he’s up on the top floor of the pyramid frozen like Walt Disney. How could this be? And how in the world does it turn out to be such a focused piece of literary science-fiction film? Perhaps there aren’t answers to such questions; the best we can do is look back on the masterful filmmaking and science-fiction storytelling that was at play back in ’82. This is a dark, intense, cerebral, and moving film, the very most important science-fiction movie ever made.
This is of course, only in my opinion, as most people believe movies like Metropolis, 2001, Star Wars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, maybe Solaris, or possibly Planet of the Apes to be the best SF movies of all time. Blade Runner usually comes in second or third – a good movie, but the best? I have this sometimes unique opinion because Ridley Scott’s finest hour fills out every requisite in my personal checklist of the standard of film.
Awhile ago I was going to publish a post akin to my ludicrous “To Ride a High Horse” post that was all about the “Standard of Film,” though it was more about how movies like Citizen Kane and Crank 2 are both great movies, but can’t be judged on the same plane. One has the aspirations to be a dramatic metaphor for America, and the other wants to be an adrenaline-pumped action masterpiece to rival HK cinema – they both succeed, but they’re different aspirations that appeal to different people: one happens to appeal to AFI. Anyhow, it’s not the time nor place for that – this new standard of film is something I concocted awhile ago and couldn’t find a new name for:
If a movie is going to succeed fully in my eyes it must be treated like a sudoku puzzle. Every element has to fit into place here, here, and here, lest it upset the balance and not work – if we do upset the balance with some superfluous element, some other filmmaker could take the movie and exchange the element for a better one. So every fabric of the movie should serve a higher purpose, and equally significant, the manner in which it’s stitched should be important and irreplaceable. Everything that happens in the movie must tie back to the thematic structure, and this is the foundation that the filmmakers will build off of with their own unique and personal ideas.
There are of course exceptions to this, like The Shawshank Redemption, those thematic framework isn’t necessarily the strongest, but it’s here to tell a damn good story, and it does, making it a truly great movie. Blade Runner on the other hand succeeds by being thematically dense – the paranoia, the questions of humanity and reality and morals, the film noir stylings, they’re everywhere in the images presented, in the dialogue, and embedded in deeper, subtler places.
What makes Blade Runner special is that the themes it addresses so meticulously are all fascinating and sometimes enlightening to me personally, and hopefully you too. Very phildickian, as one might imagine, despite it’s narrative departure from the beautifully titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s a movie that steps back from humanity by pushing us forward thirty-seven years into a smog-choked future to examine and ask question like only sci-fi can. By using death as a motive for the villains, it creates dual arcs that dovetail into a powerful climactic scene between very changed characters, and in this journey’s end we as the audience are privy to the measure of dehumanization. We’re also allowed time to reflect on all the ideas brought up over the course of the story.
I’ll try to get into it more in depth later, but the idea that death motivates our villain is so brilliant on so many levels. Not only does it make Roy Batty sympathetic and not a one-note mustache-twirling “Give me one-billion dollars lest I blow up the world” fool, it demonstrates that the acceptance that all things fade in time like tears in rain makes us human, and Rick Deckard watches on, now a replicant in spirit but not in flesh…
What seems to be the problem?
For more on Blade Runner, check out The Blade Runner Directory
Before we get into the pieces of Blade Runner I’ve found myself interested in, let’s go over the two men at the heart and soul of the film, Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick. Consider this, in addition, a prelude to another Dreck Fiction series, which I may or may not simply call: DICK.
I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never been a fan of Ridley Scott. Body of Lies, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down – these movies range from mediocre to terrible, and I haven’t seen a movie of his after Gladiator that I’ve liked. At the same time, he’s got this holy trinity of films that I absolutely love: Alien, Gladiator, and of course, Blade Runner. He struck gold with these, and each of them are deep in visual, literary, and filmic ways.
Ridley Scott’s tale of Rome and its power players is both an epic and a personal story; it’s very much about one man set against a massive backdrop, and the scale of the film is handled well within the narrative’s solid structure, which effects quick pacing and consistent storytelling. It’s classic revenge saga, and it’s very old fashioned. There is positively no gray in this movie – Maximus is the flawless hero, and Commodus is the gross villain. We want to see one kill the other really badly.
The character’s journey is incredible, and Maximus’ reveal to the Emperor is one of the great cinematic moments in history. The movie isn’t even entirely stupid, which one might gather as it’s called Gladiator, and seemingly is all about gladiators fighting. It’s a movie about politics and society and power, but through it all it’s about heroism and fighting for what’s right. It’s a movie that gets you amped up, and if I had only one complaint, it’s one that developed over the years – it’s not nearly as violent as I remembered. I guess I’ve come to be a gorehound, unfortunately.
The most famous science-fiction horror film of all time, Alien leads the charge with The Fly, The Thing, and The Mist in that very, very small genre. I enjoyed Alien when I saw it many years ago, but oddly enough, I’ve only ever seen it that once. It’s bizarre to me because it’s place in science-fiction canon is known to all in the Kingdom of Nerds, but I always opt to rewatch Aliens.
Much has been said of the set pieces – the facehugger attack, the spacejockey, the chestburster, the final showdown – these are all memorable, and I saw them a dozen times before and a dozen times after viewing the movie in full. There’s not much I can add. I can say that I’m entirely too thankful for the story brought about by O’Bannon and Hill, which was a universe big enough to carry on in three more great movies, and small enough to stay mysterious, scary, and compelling.
Philip K. Dick
My exploration into the world of Philip K. Dick has been greatly augmented by Internet research: online various essays and speeches of his can be found, and very cheaply his titles can be purchased through Amazon. In addition to that is commentary spanning all mediums, including The Greatest Movie Ever Podcast, which occasionally touches upon the many film adaptations of Dick’s novels and short stories, all of which released after his death in 1982.
Philip K. Dick is one of the most interesting characters in science-fiction, as his writing is thoughtful and profound, dark and hilarious. Moments in A Scanner Darkly made me laugh out loud, and they were paired with moments that made me extremely bummed out – in a good way. I have so much to experience that’s written by Dick, I’m sure my realtive virgin status is envied by many of his fans. He definitely strikes me as one of those authors whose books necessitate multiple readthroughs, but the first will always be the most powerful journey.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
When I think cyberpunk, a few key titles come to my mind: Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Neuromancer, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. These titles established their own worlds, populated these worlds with characters, and explored ideas characteristic of cyberpunk. I see metal men, man/machine interfaces, AI, detectives, assholes, femme fatales, metropolises, future weapons, hackers – it’s all good stuff.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? stands out for me because it’s such a depressed novel. It builds a haze of depression that translates well into the smog that’s killed all the animals and is seen in Blade Runner. Cyberpunk works since have all had sad worlds, but there’s something about this particular world that really works on a deeper literary level. It is out to get the main character Deckard, and it’s always there to bring up questions of morality, humanity, and of course, reality.
Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick. One of them I’m very interested in. I can’t quite call myself a Dickhead in reference to reading his body of work, but I’m certainly intrigued and would like to know more. I think now I finally have the time to get some serious science-fiction reading in. Ridley Scott on the other hand is a director who hits and misses, but when he hits goddamn is it spot on.
Put these two together and you’ve got the start of Blade Runner. Of course, you can’t not mention Hampton Fancher and David Peoples and Douglas Trumbull… But I guess “Ridley and the Dick” sounded funniest to me.
For more on Blade Runner, check out The Blade Runner Directory