The year is 2019, the month is November, and the setting is the city of Los Angeles. Rain always pours, and the prospects are always grave. Capitalism has ruined the planet. Skyscrapers are mountainous and neon lights and electronic billboards are scenically ubiquitous, covering almost every inch of the land.
At the bottom of the mass of progress is a grimy landscape in which everymen struggle to get by, crowding in the streets and living paycheck to paycheck. At the top, but mostly in dreamily floating blimps, are the rich and the powerful, all of whom want nothing more than for the men below them to buy their products and make them even more rich and powerful.
The days, weeks, and years have merged. North America has become a sludge of miserable goop.
The more we let Gaff’s question — and faux sympathy — sink in, the more haunting Blade Runner becomes. In so many other science fiction films, we enter brightly-colored, gaudily-built depictions of the future, worlds so labyrinthine but appetizing that we can’t help but want to abandon our own lives and go on a knapsack-accompanied excursion to familiarize ourselves.
But in Blade Runner, the visuals, though awe-inspiring, are not totally at the forefront. It drops the emphasis on material pleasures and instead probes what it’s like living in a landscape wherein everything is commodified, wherein you don’t have much of a say as to what your life will entail, and wherein your humanity is challenged with a repetition reminiscent of a chorus in a Toni Basil single.
In Blade Runner we have an intensely existential, intensely ambitious commercial arthouse movie disguised as a Hollywood blockbuster. It is among the great sci-fi movies, philosophically radical and visually influential, and is among the most essential, and demanding, features welcomed in by the mainstream.
So dense in its every endeavor, it’s unsurprising that it took so many years to get the green light. Based upon the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), interest in adaptation pinballed for nearly a decade — with early attention brought on by Martin Scorsese — until Ridley Scott was finally called in to direct a screenplay written by Hampton Fancher.
Production was troubled, with a riff between Scott and leading man Harrison Ford generally marked and a progressive lack of creative control enforcing mounting tensions, too. (There are nearly eight different versions of the film able to be accessed.) But you wouldn’t notice watching the director’s cut of the film, widely recognized as being superior to the theatrical version: Blade Runner is a revolutionary, unfading masterwork.
But so much about it shares similarities with the sci-fi norm: it stars Ford as Rick Deckard, an ex-police officer threatened into exterminating four replicants — essentially androids — who have illegally come to Earth to try to extend their four-year lifespan. Simplistically, Blade Runner is a cat-and-mouse thriller, an epic with a run-of-the-mill storyline to be upstaged by its aesthetic glimmers.
But Scott doesn’t rely too heavily on the thrills that could unfold as a result of the conventions of its plot. If anything, he diminishes them. What he’s more compelled by is how the situation impacts these characters.
Evidently, Deckard is struggling with his conscience, worried his humanity is slipping as an effect of taking away the lives of others highers-up have deemed dangerous and meaningless. The supposedly villainous replicants, with one named Batty notably played by the slithery Rutger Hauer, are not needlessly antagonistic: they just want to experience a life that lasts longer than what they’ve been provided with. And Rachael, mentioned in the introduction, is a femme (and, eventually, Deckard’s love interest) who’s forever believed herself to be a woman — so the revelation that she is not, in fact, is enough to cause her to rethink everything she’s come to know about herself.
The thriller storyline is a snooze, but perhaps that’s the intention. What makes “Blade Runner” so investing is how it deals with the crises of identity with which these characters are being confronted. When Batty closes the film with a stirring monologue, in which he reasons that all “moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain” and thus lets his opponent in battle go free, the film’s mantra crystallizes: If you don’t live the way you want to live, you might as well not live at all. Because in the end, everything you do will be forgotten, and such should prompt you to want to live for yourself.
Because so much in Blade Runner obstructs this from coming to fruition for its characters, its wonderings of what it really means to be human are expanded. If the focused-upon individuals can’t be who they want to be, who are they? What does it really mean to be human?
Searching for the answers is, in a way, a personal venture. Given Blade Runner’s extensive list of possible interpretations (there’s an entire page on Wikipedia dedicated to analyzing its symbols, themes, and allegories), the untangling of what it all means is best left up to every individual viewer rather than giving into a homogenized deciphering.
I mostly find it to be an optically bodacious fantasy whose weightiest ideas are not brought up until the final act, though I’m aware that not all viewers see it that way. But such doesn’t matter. Like any effective movie, Blade Runner is capable of coming across as a variety of different things to a variety of different people.
A sequel, Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Ryan Gosling and Ford, recently premiered, and remains unseen by me. Finishing its predecessor, there doesn’t appear to be much of a reason to elongate Scott’s vision. But with reviews so unanimously glowing (in spite of so-so box-office), maybe revisiting this grungy, noirish version of Los Angeles is worth it. Just don’t forget to first swim around in the formidable mastery put forth by the original. A
Edward James Olmos
M. Emmet Walsh
1 Hr., 57 Mins.
Blade Runner October 10, 2017
t’s a shame that she won’t live, but then again, who does?” a character asks toward the end of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). The character presenting the question is Gaff (Edward James Olmos), a grizzled, piercingly blue-eyed law enforcer, and the character being discussed is Rachael (Sean Young), a robot (or, as the film bills her, a replicant) whose lifespan is four years, of which she’s nearing the end.