Blade Runner is one of those good old-fashioned science fiction films that really immerses itself in all the classic philosophical questions that the genre is known for. And as of two and a half weeks ago, it became the latest entry in the sub-genre that one could affectionately refer to as, "Let's revisit Harrison Ford's most beloved works from the 1970s and 1980s and see what happens."
(Note: for the purposes of this review, I am watching Blade Runner: The Final Cut. I've honestly never seen the theatrical release, and don't intend to, because I've heard things and sloppily done voiceover narration is one of my pressure points.)
The film takes the view of a not-so-distant future (remarkably, this world of flying cars and off-world colonies is supposed to take place in 2019, which shows just how much we've let the ambitious people of the early 80s down) where the Earth is Terrible. It takes place in Los Angeles, which has become a dark, dirty underworld for the poor and disabled who were left behind when the upper and middle classes all moved to swankier digs off planet, but the implication is that the entire planet has been more or less abandoned. Considering that this film was made in 1982, towards the beginning of the crack epidemic that would decimate America's cities, the depiction of urban settings here are understandably bleak. It also reflects Blade Runner's status as noir-ish, filmed almost exclusively on seedy, under-lit sets that make the viewer feel distinctly uncomfortable.
Amidst this chaos is the problem of the Replicants. They are nearly indistinguishable from humans, except that stronger and arguably smarter, bred to work off-world in climates unsuitable for regular people. What could possibly go wrong there? Well, sometimes they revolt and escape, and it's the job of the Blade Runners to kill them (sorry, "retire" them). But besides the Blade Runners, there's one more fail safe to protect humanity from the Replicants: they are purposefully created with a four year life span. It is known that as the Replicants mature, they develop more natural emotional responses to stimuli, to the point where it becomes difficult to identify them as Replicants -- the four year life span naturally limits this emotional evolution.
These qualities that are bestowed upon the Replicants by their "creator", and their resulting rebellion, are a key element of the religious imagery, specifically the role of the Replicants as fallen angels, that turns up time and time again throughout the film. They are objectively superior beings, but they are rejected in favor of humanity and persecuted. When Rick Deckard, the cold-blooded Blade Runner tasked with hunting down the escaped Replicants (played masterfully by Harrison Ford in one of his many iconic roles of the late 1970s and early 1980s), shoots and kills one of them, the placement of the bullet holes is far from coincidental. She ends up with a wound on each of her shoulder blades, as though she is an angel with her wings cut off.
With this Replicant and another (Leon, who is fairly easily dispatched) dead, there are only two escaped Replicants left: Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (a pre-Splash Daryl Hannah in one of her first film roles). And with these two, we get the opportunity to explore a little bit of their personalities and motivations. Roy and Pris seem to be emotionally attached to one another in a way that doesn't necessarily gel with the concept of the inhuman Replicant, and for the first time we learn what their primary objective is. They don't seem to be trying to take over the planet or destroy humanity, as those who fear the Replicants might imagine. They know that Replicants have four year life spans: they can feel themselves deteriorating and they're scared. They just want to live.
In many ways, this is the most fascinating aspect of Blade Runner. What makes humanity? What separates humans from machines? Can something that is built rather than born have a soul? Throughout the film, Replicants demonstrate complex and organic emotions. What is more human than the dogged refusal to accept one's own mortality? They fight to survive. They are clinging to life in a way that feels very human. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the humans that hunt them, who in a lot of ways feel more unemotional and machine-like than the actual Replicants. These are classic science fiction tropes and ideas, but they're executed particularly well here.
Oh, and I almost forgot: there's one more Replicant. Rachael.
It's easy to forget that she is a Replicant, because homegirl doesn't know it herself. Deckard administers a test on Rachael that evaluates emotional responses to stimuli to see if they are genuine human emotions, thus identifying the Replicants. And it takes Deckard much longer to spot her as a Replicant than it normally does, but he gets there in the end, and Rachael's world view is shattered.
This leads to a very uncomfortable scene between Deckard and Rachael, where Deckard gets a little bit forceful as she second guesses her feelings for him. (Really, she's second guessing her feelings in general, because she's just realizing that her feelings are manufactured and therefore potentially unreliable.) And when I say forceful, I mean that he physically blocks the door when she tries to leave and then strongly encourages her to have sex with him.
I feel like this is intended to be romantic but really it comes off as rough and uncalled for and exploiting a vulnerable person who is in a fragile state.
At any rate, their relationship is sort of interesting because of the implications of a human/Replicant romance, but it also suffers from having two characters that are, as good as this film is, fairly underdeveloped.
Probably one of the strongest moments of Blade Runner is towards the end, when Roy and Deckard are facing off. They fight it out so aggressively that it feels a like Deckard HAS TO BE a Replicant by virtue of the sheer number of times he gets his head smashed into walls and just keeps getting back up. But at the end, Roy isn't killed by Deckard, he dies of old age.
Before he shuffles off this mortal coil, Rutger Hauer delivers an incredible speech and you know what, I'm just going to link to it here because I can't describe it in a way that will do it justice.
He talks about how all the memories he has are just going to disappear when he dies. That all of the things that he's seen and experienced won't exist anymore, because they only exist in his head. That they will be lost, they will disappear like tears in the rain and IT'S SO BEAUTIFUL YOU GUYS. It's such a good moment.
But after all this, one final question remains at the end of Blade Runner. Is Deckard himself a Replicant? I think that most people would probably say yes. Word on the street is that the original theatrical version is a little more ambiguous in that regard, but my perspective is that the final cut and director's cut more or less imply that he is indeed a Replicant.
In my own personal opinion, the story only really works if he is an unemotional human pitted against the rather human Replicants with great capacity for emotional depth. But I understand that Ridley Scott may have his own feelings on that subject. (Although seriously, Death of the Author and all that.)
So that's Blade Runner. I can't believe it's taken me this long to see it and I really enjoyed it. It's an incredible science fiction film, it's what the genre is made to do, to ask these sorts of questions and tell these sorts of stories and it just works so goddamn well. Anyway, Blade Runner. Enjoyed it. Two thumbs up.