- This review has been 30-odd years in the making. What little light can we throw on this film, now revered but also so long in the tooth? I have put down a few thoughts in advance of seeing Blade Runner 2049, to see how my views may change after seeing the sequel. I suppose I can avoid some of these difficulties by my usual approach of engaging in a retrospective, broad ranging textual interpretation rather than a strict, recommendation-focussed movie review.
Blade Runner is a story about a small group of artificial humans being hunted down on Earth by the police force, after returning from space. The Company that makes them, Tyrell Corporation, produces them for the military and commerce, but it is also unwilling to grant its latest models (Nexus 6) anything more than a four year life span, even when they ask for it. The Company’s motto is “More Human Than Human”, yet the police force still uses tests that attempt to distinguish a ‘replicant’ from a natural human. It takes longer to carry out this procedure on the Nexus 6 than the earlier ones. The plot involves a secretive manhunt that is entrusted to a specific ‘retired’ replicant hunter (Deckard). I call him Deckard, because that is how he introduces himself. Deckard is initially reluctant to take up his old work, but is soon persuaded to take up the job, and ultimately he pursues it in a moderately successful way. In the process, we are left to wonder, in the ultimate showdown, what are his real motives, and what morality is behind the project in the first place. At a more mundane level, I detect Deckard has real problems with job satisfaction.
I should note that there is no single version of ‘Blade Runner’. People may criticise George Lucas for fiddling with his Star Wars films, but even Blade Runner has not escaped the post-release modifications and refinements.
The original version was distinguished by Deckard’s voiceover. In those moments where the audience might have been permitted a bit of reflective time, the audience is treated to Harrison Ford’s interior monologues about what he was thinking, or his pondering about why other characters acted the way they did. I suspect that the distributors of the film wanted to avoid open interpretation. The director’s version, years later, removed the voiceover. From this we can infer that the director was happy to trust the film’s interpretation to the audience.
Blade Runner may well sit within the ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ paradigm, of a set of several alternative versions that does not spark too much of an outcry because people can find a version they prefer. (Practically, the issue with multiple versions is whether you know of all these versions, and can you obtain it? That’s the issue Star Wars fans have, due to the low availability of the original version of Star Wars IV, in a modern HD format.)
[THE DEEP QUESTIONS]
Speculation after the film, particularly in light of the director’s cut, focussed on whether Deckard was himself a replicant. Whilst that may provide further reason for inquiring into the morality of his actions, it probably doesn’t really change the deepest issues that the film is concerned with.
The film’s team of Nexus 6 ‘replicants’ are, by most definitions, perfectly able to pass themselves off as humans to the general public (it takes a sophisticated system to tell the difference). Whilst emotions may not be always their strong point, they certainly pass themselves off as having more emotional connection than some humans. Rather, the development of the ‘test’ is itself a plot element that focusses attention on the lines that we draw to classify : to include or exclude. It says more about the maker of the test than the subject in many respects. Tyrell, the creator of the robots, seems intrigued by the test. It seems his interest is not to draw a line, or to emphasise distinctions, but to remove them. In that, although his aim is commerce, he effectively creates a situation where discrimination is impossible. The darker issue, however, is whether the ability to engineer free-thinking, emoting human/replicants can predispose them to particular traits or behaviours. In the opening scenes of Blade Runner, the police force certainly seem to associate them with particular roles and behaviours: Pris is described as a ‘pleasure model’ and Batty as ‘leader’.
Some aspects of Blade Runner that were ‘futuristic’ in 1982 (when it was released) are now more familiar to us. This includes denser populations, holographic imagery, and the more mundane ability to clone animals and humans. After all, Dolly the Sheep was cloned here in the real world in 1996 and lived for 7 years, which is longer than the Nexus 6 life span.
What is different in the film that still remains starkly different? Firstly, the production of artificial humans is the norm. Industry and commerce have crossed that line and venture off, following the motto “more human than human”, in all its meaning vague, but nonetheless with the promise of superiority. Secondly, the police force of the Blade Runner metropolis still chooses to distinguish between these artefacts as items of commerce, and humans not created by Terrell Corporation. The Tyrell corporations, as evident by its director, passively accepts this distinction, whilst remaining proud of the invisible line that exists between its creations and everyone else. Origin is everything. This is a class system, but also a system of enslavement and dictation.
The issues that arise between humans and replicants, despite the technological foundation, are ultimately associated with personal freedoms. The laws of the Blade Runner universe seem to equate artificial with able to being controlled. They have not yet reached the point where ‘human is as human does’ is an acceptable basis for conveying unqualified citizenship. Interestingly, the solution to the ambiguous nature of what is artificial and what is not has been a pragmatic, rather than a completely regulatory one. That is, lifespan has been reduced. This speaks volumes about the difficulties of controlling the will of the artificial creations. It suggests that they are, in fact, quite capable of doing many things that humans do. To protect the superior position of those with human origin, these artificial humans are placed in chains, within their DNA.
The personal freedoms that we take for granted include those things that are considered unique to our personality – our memories being an important aspect. When memory becomes subject to control (as it is in the case of all replicants), it raises the question whether that individual is truly acting with free will. Some of these questions are answered early in the film by the choices made by the character Rachel.
The police Inspector F.Bryant refers to Deckard by his first name “Dick” when he first enters Bryant’s office. Deckard replies coolly “Bryant”. They are familiar, but not friendly.
Bryant’s desk is squashed between fans and lampshade with backlit pictures of a man sitting with pigs. The fans indicate heat, and insufficient funds for air-conditioning. The desk is swamped with microphones – the large, directional microphones used for press conferences, or interrogations. It paints a picture of connectedness, but isolation too. There is no hum of reporters. Bryant’s office is hidden inside a dusty room reminiscent of an arrivals area, with dozens of empty booths each topped by a microphone. There is an air of disuse, of inquisitions and police activism long forgotten.
An hour into the movie and Bryant changes the scope of work. He informs Deckard there are now 4 replicants to take out – one of which is now Rachel, who has gone missing after finding out she was a replicant too.
By way of background, Deckard’s motivations to come out of ‘retirement’ to kill the replicants as an officer are hardly clear. There is no obvious monetary gain established in the film. He seems tired and jaded. He is brought into the police office by Gaff (Edward James Olmos) under threat; seemingly against his will, but quietly. Bryant uses a harsh police vernacular at this point to describe the replicants: he calls them ‘skin jobs’.
The obvious turning point, early in the scene involving Deckard and Bryant, comes when the police chief asks Deckard if he is ‘chicken’. At the same time, the Gaff is quietly putting a paper animal in the shape of a chicken down on the desk. The police chief goes on to berate Deckard for wanting to pull out, and so to risk being a ‘little person’.
The scene is clearly open to interpretation. In my view, the ‘little people’ taunt is not making a distinction between human and replicant. It could be a distinction between those that surrender to the lack of the distinction, and those that do not.
Whatever the true nature of the taunt, it seems to be a pressure point for Deckard, in that he is not capable of showing any outward opposition to this idea. It is the taunt that turns him on his heel and back into the police work.
Deckard does not seem to have an intense personal hatred of all things ‘replicant’. When he agrees to do the work, he has no apparent knowledge of what Replicants are, and Bryant describes the possibility of the Nexus 6 models developing authentic emotions as an innovation. Deckard’s response is flat. From these early scenes we learn that the replicants have not, in the past, had much emotional range. They may have seemed easier to detect this way. Indeed, it is subtle cues in the emotional response of even the Nexus 6 models that is used to identify them as artificial.
Deckard avoids judging replicants by that fact alone, but he does so by equating them with machines. He says, in his customary flat delivery:
“Replicant are like any other machine, they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.”
By “his problem”, he means it comes within the scope of his work: he is charged with removing problem replicants, on the basis they are a risk. If you follow and accept his description, then he considers his work no more than decomissioning hazardous machines.
Whatever words he has learned to say, outwardly, to reconcile with his work, his true beliefs are tested throughout his relationship with Rachel. In his first encounter with Rachel, he does not know she is a replicant. She refers to artificial life as ‘our work’, and has a sense of ownership of it.
His inner conflict or non-agreement with the Nexus 6 issues is made real by his support and affection for Rachel, even after he knows she is a replicant (though some viewers/critics have suggested he is forceful toward her and still wants to dominate her). I suspect it would be true to his character to have retired in the first place because he is uneasy in that aspect.
[THE ORIGAMI – PART 1]
The paper chicken created by Gaff almost simultaneously with a rhetorical dialogue with Deckard in which his courage is put in issue, suggests some kind of pre-meditated conspiracy between the police chief and his assistant. It is easy to think they have discussed how to get Deckard back on the job. They know how to push his buttons.
What is interesting is that Deckard is expected to participate in a form of non-verbal communication using these paper animals – they are the calling cards of Gaff, who is fairly tight lipped. Here, early on, we see Deckard portrayed as a coward. It seems to me that the final scene of the film (at least, the one with Batty) is about true moral courage, more than physical courage, and this is an early reference to it.
Despite having memories implanted, Rachel functions as any other human. She does not initially doubt her own humanity. She is reserved, not prone to anxiety, anger or other extreme emotions. Yet a significant plot point occurs when she shoots one of the replicants to save Deckard. She is capable of taking a life to save another. There is no suggestion that she does so on a regular basis, or that this wasn’t specific to the context of the killing. No obvious criminal law repercussions flow from her actions. It can probably be assumed that she shares some of the immunities that a policeman, or Blade Runner has, when assisting one of them.
Rachel and Deckard’s relationship seems strained, claustrophobic even in the context of what else is going on. In some ways it seems Rachel is needy, and in particular, needing protection. Deckard’s pursuit of her seems opportunistic, desperate even.
[THE ORIGAMI – Part 2]
On more than one occasion, the other police officer apparently deliberately leaves small folded paper animals near Deckard, or for him to find. These include:
1. A chicken, in the office where he takes Deckard to meet the police chief.
2. A [unicorn?] outside Rachel’s apartment, to prove that he had been but left Rachel untouched.
3. [In the director’s cut?]
People have often speculated that the cranes are a plot device, to convey information about Deckard’s nature as replicant or not. I think there is more going on.
Firstly, in the original movie as the director may have imagined it, the narration was not present and the audience would have been expected to look more closely for visual cues. The visual language and symbolism was obviously more important to the director than direct exposition.
One significant moment occurs quite early in the film, when a paper animal is placed on the police chief’s desk whilst all 3 men are in the room.
We’re introduced to Batty first when he meets Tyrell, and we see his ability for thoughtful conversation and brutal homicide, albeit justified from his point of view. There’s a sense of wanting to meet the maker and understand, but all it gives him is the realisation he has little time left.
In the final scenes, Roy taunts Deckard…but instead of threats, he just calls him a little man and breaks his fingers. He only wounds Deckard, deliberately, and by returning the gun puts the power back in Deckard’s hands. The insult ‘little man’ is surprisingly universal, used by both Bryant and Batty in scenes with Deckard. But when Batty uses it, he’s suggesting that the little man who fails to rise above killing. When Bryant uses it, he’s suggesting that Deckard ought to kill. As a killer himself, it seems Batty has more regard for what choice is made when taking a life. For Deckard, it’s something he does, and moves on, or buries the consequences.
Batty motivates himself by saying “not yet” as his body tells him he has little time left. Even at the end, he still has a purpose. But what is it that he want to do beyond eking out a few more seconds of existence? Play with Deckard? Teach him a lesson? He does not pursue killing for killing’s sake. When Deckard first shoots at him, he immediately questions Deckard’s principles of shooting against someone who is unarmed. Being without a gun may not make a replicant any less dangerous, but Deckard is definitely on the defensive.
Deckard still performs some feats that most people wouldn’t. Roy is just far superior. He punches through walls and sticks metal through his hand to urge his body to respond. I am not sure why you stick things in your hand when the flexor and extensor muscles extend up the forearm, but maybe it’s a subtlety of replicant biology. Maybe it’s a symbolic act by the director, referencing things like crucifixion and stigmata. This kind of interpretation tells us something about the audience, not necessarily the director. Only those who want to encode the scene with that kind of symbolism may do so, but there’s plenty who might. Just Google it. Of course, the director may have not intended any greater symbolism: it might have been a pragmatic act, one designed to show the lengths to which Batty would go to hang on to his physical abilities until the end.
[DOVES AND POETRY]
Batty’s final words to Deckard are about Deckard needing to empathise with fear and being a slave.
Batty saves Deckard whilst holding a white Dove. They sit together. Deckard in shock, physically and mentally defeated. Batty sits down as if his work is done. Deckard is there, and Batty will not die alone. He has a moment to share his thoughts on the world. Then he says “I’ve seen things….[you people]” and goes into his poetic soliloquay. He ends with the simple, self-reflective realisation: “…time to die” and releases the dove.
The obvious question is where did the Dove come from? A man nearing death that can quietly collect a Dove and restrain it is an unusual man indeed. In this film, we don’t know if it is artificial or not. Are we to assume that there is symbolism in the Dove as well, with its deep peace message (another Christian story).
Perhaps more importantly, what does he mean by ‘you people’? Earth people…not necessarily ‘humans’?
Then, in the original version, there is a voiceover. “I do not know why he saved my life….”
“all he wanted were the same answers the rest of us want….all I could do was sit there and watch him die”
Then there are some final remarks by Gaff to Deckard, which we can only assume were made without him knowing that Rachel was any different from the other Nexus 6 replicants with a four year lifespan:
“I guess you’re through huh?”
“It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?”
The last thought, for the audience, is what is it to live? What is the freedom to live?