Is there really much more that can be said about Blade Runner? For more than twenty years, I have written regularly of the magnificence of my favourite science fiction film of all time. Can I really add fresh perspective to the wealth of essays, reviews and analysis currently out there?
The answer is probably not. But nevertheless, as I just saw the current re-release of Blade Runner (my fourth viewing in the cinema – the latest in a long line of re-releases), I feel obliged to say something, if not necessarily anything new, about this truly singular piece of work. If for some unfortunate reason you have not seen the film, stop reading now, as this article will have no regard for spoilers.
What continues to amaze about Ridley Scott’s masterpiece is the way the viewer gets utterly absorbed in the mesmerising brilliance of the production design alone. This is a film to wallow in, to lose oneself in, especially on a big screen. Expressions such as “visually astonishing” seem pathetically inadequate when describing the rain drenched noir atmosphere that practically invented the cinematic dystopian future. Well, perhaps not. Perhaps that claim is held by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but if Metropolis invented the future then Blade Runner popularised it, making it the more or less the template. Adjectives such as “groundbreaking” and “influential” don’t begin to do justice to the shadow Blade Runner casts over the history of science fiction.
And yet, the film (based on Phillip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) wasn’t exactly popular on its original release in 1982. The cult following on VHS and various directors cuts that ensued were what really solidified its reputation, and now it seems pointless to argue over which version is best. For my money it’s the latest, so-called final cut (ie the one currently playing in UK cinemas), but irrespective of extra shots of graphic violence and the legendary unicorn dream sequence, Blade Runner is a true masterpiece – even the deeply flawed original version with the tacked on voiceover and ludicrous, studio imposed happy ending.
The plot – elite “Blade Runner Unit” policeman tracks down and kills rebellious escaped slave androids called replicants that have developed emotional responses – remains a mere hook on which the lavish visual experience hangs. Some have accused the cast’s performances of being distant and cold, and that is deliberate, but I find that to be a most superficial reading of what is in fact a profoundly emotional film. The way the replicants are overwhelmed by their newfound emotions and try to learn how to respond to them is what gives the film its incredible poignancy and quiet power. It is also perhaps the reason the film has endured the way it has. Consider, for instance, the way Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) awkwardly kiss, mimicking human behaviour.
Blade Runner is a film about loneliness, that most frightening of human conditions. In this world, everyone lives alone except the replicants, who band together trying to find some meaning to life. The hoary old what-does-it-mean-to-be-human quandry lies at the core of all great science fiction, but Blade Runner asks more specific questions. What does it mean to have feelings? To have a soul? Does that give you moral responsibility? What does it mean to meet your maker?
The powerful scene where Roy meets Tyrell (Joe Turkell) can be read as an atheistic lashing out against the irresponsibility of a so-called god that cannot fix what he created, as well as a musing on the dangers of AI technology. There is something childlike and heartbreaking in the way Roy subsequently weeps over the bloodied corpse of Pris, recently gunned down by Deckard (Harrison Ford) during the finale. Essentially the replicants are children, and the cruelty with which they are efficiently dispatched is deliberately designed to leave the viewer reeling and confused. It is, for instance, impossible to imagine even the most morally depraved audience cheering when Deckard shoots Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), as she smashes through endless panes of glass in slow motion. Roy challenges Deckard, and by extension the viewer, when he says “I thought you were supposed to be good? Aren’t you the good man?”
And therein lies the rub. Is Deckard a man at all? Or is he, like Rachel (Sean Young), unknowingly a replicant? I won’t get into that unending debate here (for my money, he is definitely a replicant), but another thing that makes Blade Runner an endlessly fascinating experience is watching two machines – Deckard and Rachel – developing emotional responses, discovering their implanted memories are false, and nevertheless falling in love. The moment where Deckard seems almost, for a moment, to force himself on Rachel has been criticised as misogynist by some, but I disagree. Again, that entire scene simply shows two machines overwhelmed by the feelings they have developed, and as such they aren’t entirely sure how to respond. The scene has a deliberate awkwardness to it, and framed in that context it is actually quite poignant.
Then obviously we come to Roy’s justly famous “tears in rain” speech. It’s difficult now, so many viewings later, to recall the initial impact and surprise of Roy deciding to save Deckard’s life at the last minute, but seeing it on the big screen again, it remains an incredibly powerful and almost unbearably sad scene. The speech is celebrated and endlessly quoted, but it is also the visuals that burn themselves so vividly in the memory, including the moment where Roy’s head falls and he lets the dove go. All of this is scored so perfectly to Vangelis’s music that it remains one of cinema’s greatest moments.
Ultimately Blade Runner needs to be seen on the big screen, so if you haven’t I strongly urge you to make that effort. 2001: A Space Odyssey might be the greatest science fiction film of all time, but Blade Runner remains my favourite. Endlessly intriguing, visually staggering and emotionally enigmatic, this is a true, all-time classic.