Blade Runner (1982)

by John Bruni

B lade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and based on an original novel written by Philip K. Dick, is one of those rare films that fall under the category of  “insanely great”.

From the New Hacker’s Dictionary:

Insanely great adj. [Mac community, from Steve Jobs...] something so incredibly elegant that it is imaginable only to someone possessing the most puissant of hacker-natures (i.e., only the most mightily talented could create something insanely great.)

Blade RunnerWhy does this film still seem so completely 21st century when viewed today, despite being created more than 20 years ago, in a time when massive computer-generated graphics were in their infancy? Why does the genius of the story’s author come through despite the need for a rewrite resulting in a screenplay vastly different from the original manuscript? Why is this film still the gold standard of speculative fiction, the one movie from which all others of the genre are judged? One has to conclude that a concatenation of talents occurred, a miraculous linkage of paranoid-schizophrenic author Philip K. Dick, fabled director Ridley Scott, talented screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, Oscar nominee Harrison Ford...and on and on.

If only Hollywood could bottle this! We’d have a new hit every week...but alas, we’ll have to make do with what serendipity sends our way. In this particular case, Hollywood sent along a legend.

The opening of the film grabs you by the throat. A camera pan of Los Angeles circa 2019 reveals a spellbinding cityscape of bizarre neo-Mayan skyscrapers that lean sideways, with inexplicable fireballs that explode in a refulgence of industrial pollution gone berserk. One immediately gets the feeling that, whatever happened to LA in 2019, big business got the upper hand.

These effects would all be superfluous were it not for the simple fact that Ridley Scott got them right. Everything seen, whether strange or commonplace, comes across as completely believable. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the 18th century psychedelic poet, said that in order to believe in drama one has to have a “willing suspension of disbelief”. Our ability to believe in a scene or a film cannot be bought on the cheap. Ridley Scott’s carefully constructed imagery persuades us that what we are seeing actually could exist. Scott creates a pervasive backdrop of future-noir, a dark genre pioneered in Blade Runner. Soft and melancholy music by Vangelis adds greatly to an overall sense of sadness and alienation typical of the film-noir genre.

We first meet Harrison Ford in a Chinese noodle shop. The set is so believably rich in texture that it makes you long to walk through the screen and order something to go. At this point Ford, in his role as Rick Deckard, begins a noir-style stream-of-consciousness narration that can occasionally be jarring in comparison to the voiceover-free director’s cut. Deckard introduces himself as a hired gun, a killer, but in society’s eyes he’s legal because the androids he hunts down and “retires” are not considered human. He’s down and out, with no job and no girl. He hates what he does and resists going back to it when the police force him to track down a band of renegade androids.

In 2019, the Tyrell Corporation manufactures androids that are equal or superior to human beings in every way. It takes a sophisticated test just to tell them apart from people. Androids, created for use as off-world slave labor, are banned on earth because they are capable of rebelling against their creators. The androids tend to develop their own emotions – unprogrammed – if they live long enough. For this reason, the Tyrell Corporation designs them with a four-year lifespan.

Sean Young as RachelDeckard is asked by the Tyrell Corporation to demonstrate the test that differentiates androids from humans. He is given a purportedly human subject to test, Rachel Rosen (Sean Young), a prototype android who doesn’t know she isn’t human. Deckard finds himself captivated by her charms and she, by his.

Throughout the film Gaff, the police chief’s assistant, portrayed by Edward James Olmos, trails Deckard. Gaff has a mysterious habit of leaving origami figures wherever Deckard goes. Gaff is studying Deckard – he’s another blade runner ­and he portrays one of the iconic ciphers that are strewn throughout the film. Gaff seems to know what Deckard is going to do before he does it, leaving as clues an origami chicken, an anatomically correct origami man, and later an origami unicorn. Do Gaff’s actions prove that Deckard is also a replicant, as some would say? That’s up for debate, but Gaff is an inarguably haunting character despite the brevity of his lines.

From a text scroll at the beginning of the film we know that a band of androids killed 23 humans off-world before fleeing to Earth. Led by Roy Batty, intensely portrayed by Rutger Hauer, they embark upon a search for their maker. Roy eventually tracks down Tyrell himself, owner of the android-making corporation. Batty tells Tyrell he’s the Prodigal Son returned. But Batty is no prodigal son in the Biblical sense, for he is in no way repentant for his sins. Batty much more closely resembles Lucifer, the fallen angel, and this truly is the major theme of the movie. Like Lucifer, more beautiful than all the other angels and created to lead the worship of God in Heaven, Batty rebels against his creator. When Tyrell can’t or won’t extend Batty’s nearly expired lifespan, Batty murders Tyrell in a grotesque demonstration of human rage and inhuman strength.

Deckard embarks upon a parallel trail of murders or retirements, which also touches upon Philip K. Dick’s original premise: is there a difference between the androids and the humans, and if androids can dream for and hope in the same things that humans desire, why should it be legal for humans to “retire” them or treat them as anything other than equals? Deckard’s retirement of Zhoura, portrayed by Joanna Cassidy, is tawdry and pathetic, giving insight into why Deckard so hates what he does.

Deckard falls prey to Leon, the most hapless of the androids, played by Brion James. Deckard would have been killed by Leon but for a timely gunshot from Rachel that takes Leon out instead. Rachel now knows she is an android ­– Deckard cruelly educated her about this, pointing out that her memories of her mother are implanted and her treasured pictures of her childhood are phonies. Tellingly, just like the androids, Deckard has a set of family photos that he treasures. Deckard and Rachel are lovers; he assures her that he will not retire her.

Another android, Pris, played by Darryl Hannah, is responsible for the trap that led Batty to Tyrell. She persuades J.F. Sebastian, one of Tyrell’s close associates, to let her into J.F.’s apartment, a place filled with his friends. As J.F. says, he makes friends, but in this case he means it literally. The friends are androids that he has created. They are charming, elfin creatures. If actors fear having to perform next to child stars or animals, they should truly avoid being filmed next to creatures as wondrous as these because they completely steal the scene. One improbably long-nosed little android gives a particularly poignant performance, trembling in utter fear when the renegade Pris is near but unable to stray from its limited programming to warn J.F. of her evil nature.

Philip K. DickPris attempts to murder Deckard when he shows up at J.F.’s apartment, but Deckard kills her instead. Batty shows up shortly thereafter – it is here that we realize Batty has tender human emotions ­– he loves Pris and mourns her loss greatly. From here, the battle to the death between Batty and Deckard begins. In an incredible ending, Batty masters Deckard, proving he is stronger, smarter and perhaps more deeply feeling than his human creators. Knowing his four-year lifespan is now over, Batty demonstrates his nobility once more by letting Deckard live. Rutger Hauer delivers a riveting performance here as he speaks Batty’s dying words. When Batty dies a white dove he holds in his hand flies upward, hinting of the eternity he longed for and lost. Batty, like Lucifer, was flawed yet brilliant and, like the tiger in William Blake’s poem, he burned for a brief time more brightly than any other. Clearly awed, Deckard cannot take his eyes off Batty’s now-inert form.

The director’s cut, which is incidentally one of the first director’s cuts ever released, has a final twist that leaves one with the realization that Gaff, as another blade runner, could have retired Rachel Rosen (and Deckard, too, perhaps). Out of respect for Deckard, he lets her live. Unlike the director’s cut, the original release has a “feel good” ending where we see Rachel and Deckard wandering off into the equivalent of a Hollywood sunset. Ridley Scott’s version, on the other hand, leaves us forever guessing whether they will survive.

Ironically, Philip K. Dick made only $1,250 for the book that Blade Runner is based upon, titled “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Dick received very small sums for his novels, many of which were made into mega-movies after his death in 1982. Other movies based on his writings include the Schwarzenegger film Total Recall (1990), for which his novel earned an unknown but presumably minuscule amount; Screamers (1995), for which he earned $375; Impostor (2002), for which Dick earned $75; Spielberg’s Minority Report(2002), for which Dick was originally paid only $130 for his short story; and most recently the John Woo film Paycheck (2003), for which his story earned $195. Philip K. Dick’s children now manage a stable of manuscripts worth millions of dollars, at least three of which are currently optioned and likely to become hit movies.

Finally, for the reader’s convenience, a reprint of William Blake’s poem follows:

The Tiger, by William Blake

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

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