Blade Runner was a genre-defining film. Made at a time when the world’s technological capabilities were increasing quicker than our ability to use them all properly, it tapped into all those futuristic dreams (or anxieties) that characterised societies across world. Even the futuristic-sounding musical score by Vangelis was carefully crafted to add to the fantastical atmosphere of the film. More than that though, the film broke visual and narrative boundaries, combining dystopian cityscapes, outlandish costumes, an esoteric but poetic script and a whole bedrock of sedimentary layers of sub-text and meaning. It touched on issues to do with the anxieties of urban sprawl, the nature of artificial life, corporate power, social stratification and the very nature of life and death.
The film begins with an interrogation of a so-called Replicant (artificial humans that look identical to us) called Leon (Brion James). He is one of a group who have escaped the ‘off-world colonies’, where they were banished to after a revolution. After Leon kills his questioner, he, along with the rest of the Replicant group, is hunted down by Deckard (Harrison Ford), who just happens to be one of the best ever Blade Runners – the special police unit charged with hunting Replicants. Decakrd is reluctant at first, and is brought back to police HQ by the enigmatic Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who has a habit of crafting origami structures throughout the film. Once convinced to become a Blade Runner again, Deckard, go to the HQ of the company that makes these Replicants, the Tyrell Corporation. Here, he meets up with Rachel (Sean Young), who is unaware of her own inhumanity, indeed “more human than human” is the company’s motto. The lead Replicant, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) meanwhile is looking to visit his maker in order to explore his own existence, characterised by his dismay (or at least inquisitiveness) of his four-year life span. Working his way through the various employees of the company (including someone who makes Replicant eyes, and a bio-engineer), he finally faces off with (and kills) Eldon Tyrell, the man who designed him. During this time, Deckard chases and destroys two of the other Replicants, while beginning a relationship with Rachel. The final showdown between Deckard and Batty ends with Batty choosing not to kill Deckard, and saves his life just before his own life-cell expires. Depending on the version you watch (there are many subsequent versions of the film beyond the original theatrical release), there is a different ending, some of which hint at the fact that Deckard is a Replicant himself.
To review the film, I wanted to do so by teasing out some of the important themes so as to whet your appetite as what a layered and meaningful film it is, and to maybe, just maybe, get you to watch it again in a new light.
The first theme that is perhaps the most obvious given the setting of the film, is that of the city. One of Blade Runner’s most enduring legacies is the way it pictured the futuristic, dystopic urban environment. Set in Los Angeles in 2019 (which I suppose felt like a long when it was made), its images of mile-high skyscrapers and flying cars is perhaps are still a bit further off, but the more visceral imagery of the endless urban sprawl, industrial pollution and the crowded city streets imprinted an urban template which has been endless copied and riffed upon since. Total Recall (particularly the more recent version), Minority Report (often rumoured to have started out as a sequel to Blade Runner), Dark City and The Matrix are all examples of more recent films that have ‘borrowed’ from Scott’s masterful depiction of urbanity. One particular theme is the pervasiveness of oriental imagery to depict the grittiness of the city. We often see Deckard in the chaotic throng of the city, surrounded by oriental neon signage, exotic animals in cages, Chinese food stalls and Eastern-influenced bazaars. This is deliberately set against the relative freedom of the space in the sky, where the police and other in position of power (i.e. corporate power) glide across the city in flying cars with ease. The juxtaposition between the claustrophobia of the streets and the freedom of the skies is a deliberate metaphor for the social division within cities in real life, something which many films since have copied visually. The lofty grandeur of the Tyrell Corporation’s offices reflects the corporate power of modern times, and there pervasive control of the city and society in general is a rather thinly veiled critique of the way in which the city continues to privatise urban space.
The second, perhaps more ingrained theme that I want to explore is that of the eye. From the opening scene that shows the massive sprawl of LA, we see a blinking eye spliced into the shot – this sets the visual tone for the rest of the film (the eye and the ‘I’ – more of which later). Throughout the film, Scott is very careful to show Replicant eyes as reflective, much like cats eyes. In one scene at his apartment, Deckard’s eyes are semi-reflective (but never fully so), further fuelling the debate that he is indeed a Replicant (again, more on that debate later). When Batty visits the eye-maker, one of the films most viscerally enigmatic and therefore brilliant scenes, the eye-maker (who incidentally played by James Hong, a Chinese-American, further adding to the ‘orientalist’ divide of the film) explains how he made Batty’s eyes, and reveals in their beauty and complexity. Batty responds by saying “if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes”, with a sense of ironic superiority. Moreover, when Batty finally confronts Tyrell, he kills him by pressing his thumbs into his eyes. Batty further develops the link between his eyes, what he has seen, and the fallibility of human life in the final scene, where, before he ‘expires’ (or dies), he claims “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 darkness at Tannhäuser Gate”. Suggesting that he has seen things that human eyes never will be able to, Batty is lamenting the limitations of the human body, and perhaps is accepting his limited lifespan in lieu of enhanced physical capabilities; indeed, just before Tyrell is murdered, he says to Batty; “the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long”. More human than human indeed.
Our eyes are often described as windows into our souls, something Ridley Scott explores to the full to address the very nature of our humanity; our own infatuation with death (and the attempts to delay it). And for me, this is the over-riding narrative of the film – what is means to be human, to be conscious of the self – the ‘I’. Scott masterfully debates the true internal struggles over our own humanity through the wonderfully crafted script, and the intricate detailing of the sets and the visual aesthetics. The limited lifespan of the Replicants provokes Batty to search for answers as to why he was made that way – the search to meet our maker. The probing questions he askes of the people he meets signal the realisation of his own mortality, juxtaposed against the obliviousness of the human race’s knowledge of death. One of the Tyrell employees that Batty encounters is J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) who has Methuselah Syndrome, meaning he too has a shorter lifespan than ‘normal’ humans. The similarity between the two eventually leads to Batty convincing Sebastian him to take him to Tyrell, questioning the taken-for-granted superiority of human over artificial life. The fragility and preciousness of life, the embracing of one’s own demise is however only part of the humanistic theme inflected throughout. Rachel, the ‘next generation’ Replicant is (seemingly) unaware of her own artificial humanity, given that she has been implanted with fake memories. She wrestles with this leading to her confronting her own inauthenticity, through fractured, but ultimately lovingly reconciled relationship with Deckard. The suggestion being that emotional engagement, be that physical love, as she has with Deckard or memories of loved ones and associated suffering, pain and regret, is enough to qualify ‘humanness’ regardless of the origin of that emotion (either implanted or experienced directly).
But in one of the most memorable parts of the film, while Deckard plays the piano in his apartment, we see the vision of a unicorn running through a field (in some versions of the film anyway). Is he dreaming this? Why a unicorn? This passage of the film has been scrutinised ad infinitum, but it seems that the apocryphal unicorn symbolises Deckard’s internal conflicts about whether he indeed is a Replicant or not, reflecting humanity’s own confused justification for being human. The fact that we see an origami unicorn at the end of the film placed there by Gaff, suggests that Gaff knew about Deckard’s dream and therefore he is, in fact, a Replicant himself.
The final showdown between Batty and Deckard on the rooftops again is packed full of visual and narrative symbolism. The very fact that Batty saves Deckard’s life and then ‘expires’ himself has almost a quasi-religious undertone, with Batty’s Christ-like (in that he is both human and not human) sacrifice for humanity. His final phrase “time to die”, notes his own acceptance of his limited lifespan (and mirror’s Christ’s final words upon his death), and as he releases a dove, again paints a not-so-subtle Christian symbol of repentance; the very act that in Christian doctrine, makes us human (indeed, there are a number of Christian themes run through many of Scott’s films). Is Batty’s acceptance of death what it really means to be human? Can artificial life fully understand humanity via emotional engagement? These are the poignant questions posed by Scott, revealing only part answers that leave you to make your own decision. Gaff then suddenly appears (as he usually does so throughout the film, raising questions as to whether he is actually part of Deckard’s implanted mind or actually a person – I tend to think the former) and says, “ It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?” Referring to Rachel, Gaff once again proves the philosopher-in-chief, further affirming the film’s role in questioning what it actually means to be human.
As a brief coda, I want to be slightly controversial. Given Blade Runner’s over-arching theme of the quest for humanity, the search for our maker and to understand the terms of our own life, the film bears more than a striking thematic link with Prometheus. Scott made no secret of his desire to make a Blade Runner sequel (something which is still in the reckoning), but for me, Prometheus is a Blade Runner sequel, at least thematically. It takes the idea of the search to meet our makers to the next step (i.e. intergalactic travel), and deals with the nature of artificial life and the blurred boundaries of the human/non-human divide. The whole “is Prometheus in the Alien universe?” debate is a red herring – I think Scott had Deckard in mind when shooting Prometheus far more than Ripley.
Blade Runner is a phenomenal piece of work, Scott’s finest work to date (although joint first with Alien I admit). The multi-layered nature of the film means that I learn something new about the film every time I watch it. And I’m sure you will too.