By 1982, the world was in love with science fiction. Author of Blade Runner Philip K. Dick was well-versed in his craft, but not quite the legend he would become after his death. By this time Dick had written Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? soon to be turned into a script and directed by Ridley Scott, who had just gotten off the success of his Gothic horror masterpiece, Alien.
Enter Blade Runner, a science fiction chase film mixed with noir sensibilities (tech noir is the phrase I’ve heard used to describe the film) set in Los Angeles, 2019. Harrison Ford is Rick Deckard, a retired detective who is called back into the line of duty to find and retire (assassinate) six replicants (androids), who have escaped their assigned colonies on another planet and are now hiding in LA.
Replicants, unlike typical robots you might find in a sci-fi film such as this, are quite realistic when it comes to being like their human counterparts. Down to the hair strands on their heads, they have synthetic everything –blood, brains, sweat, and muscles– purposefully, as this play’s into the film’s central question: What does it mean to be human?
“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”
The script by Hampton Fancher (The Other Side Of The Mountain) and David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven, Twelve Monkeys) has a methodical unraveling to it. It reads as a straightforward mystery. And while the script is quite good (Blade Runner has plenty of memorable dialogue), I would be one to argue that it isn’t so much the script so much as what Scott does with the material that makes this film so mesmerizing to watch.
The cast of Blade Runner is strong as well, adding to that hypnotic quality the film is known for. If you’re a Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Indiana Jones) fan, you’ll be at home with Blade Runner. Ford’s presence giving you a lot to hang on to if at times the film’s slow pace gets to you.
Edward James Olmos (Battlestar Galactica), Sean Young (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple., Calvary), and Daryl Hannah (Kill Bill) add plenty of charisma to the cast, creating an interesting supporting group that will leave you revisiting the film to study each of them individually.
With a cast such as this, there tends to be a standout–and, for my money at least–that would be Rutger Hauer (Sin City, Batman Begins). Hauer’s performance as Roy Batty is fascinating, as frightening as it is tragic. Roy is tall, muscular, with blonde hair and blue eyes, which serves as a metaphor for past interpretations (Greek and Aryan) of what the perfect human should look like. Hauer also delivers the best-improvised monologue I have ever experienced in a film.
Jordan Cronenweth’s (Altered States) cinematography is a defining example of how cinematography can enhance the film experience. Although the film has slightly different color timing depending on which version you watch (of the three, I’ve seen the Director’s Cut and the Final Cut), they all let Cronenweth show off his skill behind the camera. The film is dense, often with many things going on in the frame, such as when Deckard is perusing through a crowded cityscape. The opening sequence alone is worth deep discussion, as we witness beautiful pillars of flame rising into the LA skyline. This is a beautiful film.
Vangelis’ score is, simply put, wonderful. From the opening title cards to the end of the film, it is something almost everyone compliments Blade Runner on. His use of synthesizers and lack of any acoustic instrumentation adds to the futuristic feel, successful and at the same time in building tension, and genuine wonder.
Finally, we have Ridley Scott’s directing, and here he is at the top of his game. Like a maestro he weaves the cast, music, and story together to create one big, beautiful picture. Blade Runner is remembered not for how great each individual element is, but for how well they work together, to present a film that will stay with you days after watching it. The film is slow, and works like a trance, asking you to lean forward and look between the lines.
“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 dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… “
Marsha Nakashima’s editing leads to what some dislike about the film. I would argue again this has more to do with Scott’s direction, and is important to note: Blade Runner is a slow film. It is a film that succeeds on the intrigue of the viewer, not on any sort of emotional experience. If you’re a viewer who typically struggles with slow pace, you may find yourself bored during portions of Deckard’s adventure. This is the only fault I can give to Blade Runner, and it is a big fault. The film simply isn’t for everyone. It is just as easy to recommend as it isn’t, depending on how well the viewer understands his/her preferences.
Some Elements To Note
What’s particularly striking about Blade Runner is that Scott does not approach the film in a way you might expect. The synopsis alone probably brought to mind a fast-paced thrill ride, however Deckard’s adventure is the opposite. Utilizing long takes, a hypnotizing score, and a sense of pacing that hinges on being too slow, this film is not worried so much about the action, so much as it is the tone, environment, and characters. First and foremost this is a noir thriller.
Science has advanced to the point that the androids Deckard is after are implanted with memories, either of a deceased real person or with made-up memories developed exclusively for them. There’s an increased acceptance of violence, which Scott uses to play tricks with the audience. Whenever a replicant is killed, it is as bloody and gruesome as if it were a real human and therefore, the audience reacts in the same way. This is a smart move by Scott, who perhaps is trying to say something about what really triggers an emotional response in the human psyche.
At the time Blade Runner was produced, there was a surge of Asian influence in America, and Scott uses this to his advantage. Advertisements, people, and set design are almost always done with an Asian aesthetic in mind, alluding to an advancement in technology, a plausible future.
Here, animals serve as a status symbol, as after the events that plagued the world, most animals were wiped out and as such, owning a real animal is very expensive and used to show the current state of the economy. The architecture has beeping lights, long lines leading the eye skyward. Hierarchy is at play here, lower class citizens dwell on the floor of the city, and the upper class nest like owls in the buildings high above the horizon.
From a Christian perspective, Blade Runner presents ideas that one can wrestle with; first and foremost, the question of defining one’s humanity. From Scripture, we can establish that we are made in the image of God; we understand we have a soul. Scott creates a motif for humanity in the film itself, constantly focusing on character’s eyes, the motif being, the eyes are the window to the soul.
However the film never truly gives us a definitive answer to its question, letting the audience wrestle and determine its own interpretation(s). There are plenty of moments where a character who is not human is either killed, rejected, or maligned in some way, and we feel genuine pity for them.
Why is this if we know they are not human? What makes us feel for artificial intelligence?
The notion of an ambiguous film supposes that one cannot truly believe something (a theory on the film for example) unless that belief has been tested (by using evidence that the film gives its viewers). It is often the stereotype that Christians do not understand what they claim to believe, that they do not read or understand the Word of God, that they only believe in the Gospel message because they were raised to do so, etc.
Due to this, I find it encouraging that Blade Runner (and any film that purposefully leaves its questions up to the viewer), forces its viewership to think for themselves, and determine a sincere conclusion. This is a good way to go about life: understanding what we genuinely believe by way of deep examination as opposed to just accepting everything we’re told.
Without spoiling anything, Blade Runner is one of the most analyzed films of all time. What’s interesting is that, unlike films that undergo analysis simply due to fan’s enjoyment, this story is asking its audience to be analyzed. It wants you to ask questions. If you’re a fan of this film already, and wondering why I’m not going into details of its now legendary iconography (or highly debated ending), it’s because I hope readers who have never experienced Blade Runner will leave here and try to unravel the film for themselves.
The Three Versions of the Film
Each version has significant differences. For more details on them you can check out the wikipedia page on the subject. I will say, it is generally accepted the theatrical cut is the worst way to watch the film. I personally have not seen it so my opinion is not valid. This is just conjecture from others who have watched it.
At the time of producing the film, Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott disagreed on the film’s ending, leading to the two of them feuding for years over it which lead to Harrison Ford giving a lackadaisical, and downright dull narration in the theatrical cut (the only cut to have narration). So again, I am only here critiquing the Final Cut and the Director’s Cut, the former being my preferred way to experience Blade Runner.
It is also important to note the Director’s Cut is more of a producer’s cut, as it was mandated by Warner Bros. simply to appease fans. The Final Cut of the film is the true director’s cut, in which Warner Bros. gave Scott the original negatives, allowing him to re-cut the film to fit his original vision as close as possible.
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Violence – Eyes are poked out (how much is seen depends upon the version of the film). Characters are killed by gunfire and hand-to-hand combat. Multiple fingers are broken on-screen. Strong, bloody violence designed to stay with the viewer.
Sex – A stripper undresses during dialogue, brief nudity. Some passionate kissing.
Language – Mild language dependent on the version, “a**,” “f****r.”
Alcohol – Protagonist is a hard drinker. Many characters drink liquor.
If you have your own ideas/interpretations about the film, please let me know in the comments below!
+ Strong Direction + Genre-defining visuals/atmosphere + Talented Cast + Perfect, hypnotic score + Great Special Effects
- Will be too slow for some - Loosely structured narrative
The Bottom Line
Powerful and intriguing, Blade Runner is a wonder of Science Fiction. Its themes and ideals echo well into the physical world that’s presented alongside it. Scott delivers the story, not so clearly, and sadly that’s its weakest point. You may have to watch it a second time to really understand everything that’s going on. But the atmosphere and the characters are where this film really shines. Perhaps the most asked question in all of human expression is "What does it mean to be human?" While Blade Runner may not give us a definitive answer, it certainly leaves you hypnotized with the options.