Tears lost in rain.
Blade Runner isn’t so much a story as it is a philosophy, an intricate and intelligent observation on life, the perceptions of society, and humanity’s carnal need for dominance. After watching the film, I didn’t think so much about the plot of Blade Runner as I did on its themes. This is a film that asks many questions and then asks its viewers to provide the answers. And the questions Blade Runner poses are irrevocably complex; our answers, even more so.
The story is based on a Philip K. Dick book titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It takes place in an alternate future where flying cars are the primary form of transportation, holographic Coca-Cola ads light up the night sky, and robotic-humanoid hybrids blend in with the rest of society. These hybrids are called “Replicants”, and they are seen as a threat to the human race and are relentlessly hunted by specialists called “Blade Runners.” When a blade runner eliminates a replicant, they don’t even get the courtesy of saying they were killed. Instead, they call it “retirement.”
Our hero Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a blade runner, and he is tasked with hunting four replicants that arrived to Earth a few days ago. One of those replicants is Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), and his mission is to expand on his replicant bretheren’s short life span and integrate into human society. Both are extremists by every definition. Both are not above taking a life for the sake of their own agenda. And both think they are justified for their cruelty.
Ultimately, Blade Runner is a film about discrimination. Against who, exactly? Doesn’t matter. Pick your minority of choice and fill it inside the replicants, and you have your conflict. Unlike other films that tackle a similar subject matter, Blade Runner isn’t so much interested in the labels as much as it is interested in the actions. For instance, observe the principles of the Blade Runners themselves. They’re a team of bounty hunters tasked with navigating, hunting, and eventually killing (excuse me, “retiring”) a group of individuals they know next to nothing about. They don’t know who they are, they don’t know why they came here, and they don’t know what exactly they’re trying to accomplish. They only know their names and where they came from, and that they don’t belong in the society that created them.
Now tell me: how is that different from the sheriffs that hunted slaves who fled from their plantations during the 1800’s? Or a swarm of police finding and viciously punishing a group of civil rights protestors in the segregation era? Or Nazis searching for Jews hiding out in Poland in the 1940’s? Without directly commenting on these social issues, Blade Runner demonstrates the primal fear that society develops for individuals they don’t understand and the prejudice they create as a response to it. Granted, Blade Runner doesn’t have anything to say about the solutions to such issues: just the psychology of persecution and how that creates ripple effects throughout society.
Take Roy as another curious example. In the context of this film, he is seen as the film’s antagonist. But in his perspective, he sees Deckard as the antagonist. Is either one wrong? Is either one right? They both play to their own extremes and aren’t against violence and killing, but that’s besides the point. Both the humans and the replicants have their guns pulled on each other. Both are in response to violence that was previously perpetrated. Now the question is this: who fired first, and is the other justified in firing back?
As I said before, complicated questions, many of which don’t have easy answers to. Part of that is because there isn’t any neutrality expressed in the film. The character that is closest to representing one is Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant who believes that she is human. Really, she isn’t that far off from any other regular person. She likes to smoke, she exhibits her own feelings, emotions, fears, and she even possesses childhood memories. The memories in actuality belong to her creator’s niece, but does that make her memories any less real? Does it make her any less real?
The film is beautiful to look at and invokes the same aesthetic and nostalgia as those 1950’s Neo-Noir crime dramas do. Using light and contrast as tools to sharpen the images he brings to the screen, director Ridley Scott invokes a dark, ethereal setting that feels downtrodden and slummy, yet inhibits its own spirit and energy where shadowy figures hide around bleak corners, smoking cigars, and maybe downing a drink from the local pub. Bringing on visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner possesses the same edginess and detail to its set design, but it never gets lost in it. It simply lets the setting breathe as it will, and as Deckard navigates through the complexions of a lost city, so do we deconstruct the complicated things going on within it.
Blade Runner is well-acted, morally challenging, and visually absorbing. This much it has going for it. Where it loses focus is in its screenplay, which is so messy and convoluted that it nearly screws up the entire narrative. While I was a fan of the ambitious ideas the film was exploring, I wasn’t a fan of how it was overreaching beyond its grasp. There were many times where the film moved at a briskly quick pace, oftentimes slipping past important details that were essential to later scenes. I didn’t really understand the point of Blade Runner up until its climax, but by that point I was endlessly confused and lost with what these characters were supposed to be doing and why. It wasn’t until after I finished watching the film that I began to piece events together and understand it more efficiently. When it comes to filmmaking, it is the screenwriters job to construct the story and simplify it for its viewers, not the other way around. With Blade Runner, it is much more interested in flashy effects, brilliant concepts, and dystopian scenery than it is in its characters and deeper mythology. In that regard, Blade Runner is just plain lazy.
In hindsight, I find Blade Runner to be strongest as a conversation topic: an exchange of ideas between cinephiles and philosophers on where we are as a society versus where we are going. I don’t, however, consider it quality entertainment or even necessarily fun. I would watch it again to understand it better; not to enjoy it more.
As a film, Blade Runner is confusing and flashy. As a story, it fails to be coherent. But as a series of existential questions that we all need to ask ourselves, Blade Runner is invaluable. I hope you are ready with your answers.