Here are some updated thoughts (2017): Blade Runner 2049 is only days away, and is about to gain an influx of new fans. So I rummaged around my drives and found this old review I wrote back in 2000 for the DVD.
I’ve updated the review to reflect what is now, in my opinion, the only version of Blade Runner you should watch . . . The Final Cut, released in 2007. This is the only version of the movie where Ridley Scott had complete creative control during the editing process. It cleans up many special effects shots, and has Roy referring to Tyrell as “father” instead of the ludicrously dubbed “fucker” in other versions. Another notable change is that the film we brightened somewhat during the digital enhancement process. I always thought Blade Runner was a dark film, but adding some brightness helps bring out a lot of detail without minimizing the dystopian look of future Los Angeles.
This review contains minor spoilers.
Blade Runner is loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s classic book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and takes place in the very near future . . . 2019 Los Angeles to be exact. Obviously we’re not going to be there in 19 years, but it doesn’t matter, this movie is far too original, innovative and visionary to nit-pick that point. (Edit: Note this review was originally written in 2000.)
The Tyrell Corporation has created replicants to carry out the tasks that most of humanity doesn’t want to engage in: war, menial labor, and even the world’s oldest profession, prostitution. The catch is they are programmed at the genetic level to die after four years before they start to take on too many characteristics of their human creators . . . emotions, specifically empathy. To do so would cause them to be almost indistinguishable from “real” humans and cause them to rebel against their creator. On occasion some of them do indeed rebel against their creators, and that’s when a “blade runner” comes in to retire renegade “skin jobs.” Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a burned out blade runner who’s asked to do one last job . . . retire four replicants who have come back to Earth in hopes of extending their lives. Even lacking a sense of empathy, it’s difficult to distinguish a replicant hidden among the population of Earth, especially when they may not know they’re replicants. To ferret them out blade runners employ a test, the “Voight-Kampff” empathy test, to identify those hiding in the population. With each new generation of replicants, Dr. Eldon Tyrell is making improvements . . . “more human than human” is his motto after all, and with each generation emotions are becoming more evident in them.
The central theme in Blade Runner is an examination of humanity itself, what it is to be human, and the distinction that not only does the ability to rationalize make us human, but perhaps more importantly the ability to empathize is what makes us truly human. Alan Turing proposed a test in 1950 that would examine the ability of a machine (artificial intelligence) to be indistinguishable from a human. But this test is limited to textual exchanges only, isolating the machine from the human. The limitation of the Turing test is that it cannot capture interaction and emotion between tester and subject. In Blade Runner that test is improved by the Voight-Kampff test to include empathy detection.
The backdrop to the entire story is a cold, rainy, dirty human city through which the replicants move while being hunted by equally cold, and seemingly emotionless, human beings. So who is more human in the end? The passionate replicants with a drive to stay alive at almost any cost, or the human characters shuffling through their apathetic dystopian existence manipulating pieces on a chessboard (specifically Tyrell himself)? There’s no answer, because in this world the line between biological and artificial is blurring to the point of obscurity. And that’s the ultimate fear of the creator . . . to be supplanted (or made obsolete, or less “special”) by their creations.
One scene in particular that makes this theme stand out is the “love” scene between Deckard and Rachael. Prior to the scene Rachael (Tyrell’s latest generation experimental replicant) is shown dressed as her normal self . . . hard, sculpted, angular, cold . . . wholly replicant. Rachael seems confident and impervious when seen and portrayed as a replicant. She starts looking at family pictures in Deckard’s apartment, and playing the piano which she didn’t know she could do. She lets her hair down, and her stark makeup seems to vanish and she looks less artificial. She’s slowly transformed into a vulnerable and conflicted human. Deckard kisses her on the cheek, then looks for more. Rachael hesitates and tries to leave the apartment. At this point he essentially forces himself on her, forcibly pulling words and emotions out of her. After all, isn’t she just Eldon Tyrell’s latest experiment (per his words), merely an appliance . . . simply merchandise? Deckard kills these skin jobs as his job after all.
Blade Runner (1982)
In the dark Los Angeles of 2019, Rick Deckard, an ex-cop, is a “Blade Runner.” When four replicants commit a bloody mutiny on the Off World colony, Deckard is called out of retirement to track down the androids. As he hunts the replicants, retiring them one by one, he soon comes across another replicant, Rachael, who evokes human emotion, despite the fact that she’s a replicant herself. As Deckard closes in on the leader of the group, his true hatred toward artificial intelligence makes him question his own identity in this future world, including what’s human and what’s not human.
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young
Genre: Science Fiction
Media: Film, 117 minutes
Budget: $28 million
Box Office: $33 million, domestic
Year: June 25, 1982
In this scene the coldness exuded by the human Deckard and the emotions portrayed in the replicant Rachael are meant to make the viewer uncomfortable. The scene is meant to make you ask the question “Who are the good guys here?!” As stated before, while Blade Runner is loosely based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the humanity theme is reinforced at the end of the novel when Deckard proclaims: “But it doesn’t matter. The electrical things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are.” In the end he comes to accept replicants for what they are, and perhaps for what he is himself.
All of the themes prevalent in Blade Runner are staples in the writing of P.K. Dick: lack of a prototypical hero, paranoia, identity, an illusory world (things are not always what they seem), and what defines us as humans.
Harrison Ford plays the burned out Deckard adequately, but the standout performance in Blade Runner comes from Rutger Hauer who shines as the psychotic Nexus-6 replicant Roy Batty. Despite Roy’s murderous calm throughout, he has a forgiving streak as he accepts his fate and his memories fade like tears in rain. He desired life so much that he would kill to find its secret, but in the end he loved and desired it so much he couldn’t bear to end Deckard’s life. So in all of Roy’s genetic perfection, at the end he possessed the single thing that makes us all human . . . empathy.
Or he spared Deckard’s life be because he was also a replicant. But that’s a whole different can of worms that fans have debated for years. I won’t get into it here other than to say, yes I believe Deckard is a replicant.
It’s said that a soundtrack can make or break a movie. The Blade Runner soundtrack is probably unlike any you’ve ever heard. It was composed/performed by Vangelis (Chariots of Fire) and is comprised mainly of electronic instruments and mixes, which are a perfect fit for the movie. Many people hate it, but I love it! I couldn’t image traditional orchestral music (John Williams et al.) being attached to Blade Runner. It would be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole . . . it just wouldn’t go!
The visual effects where done by Douglas Trumbull (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and are instantly recognizable as soon as you see the air-cars (“spinners”) skimming around with their luminescent lights. They look just like the UFOs from CE3K! Ridley Scott does a masterful job of building such a dark and visionary world, so close on the heals of his other science fiction masterpiece Alien. He’s truly a gifted director that has a flair for bringing an original cinematic look to the silver screen. Blade Runner is currently ranked at #69 on the IMDb Top 250. (Edit: This was in 2000, as of today it is #140 on that same list.)
The visually lush Blade Runner explores and asks the question: What makes us human? It repeatedly strides right up to that reflection in the dystopian rain puddle . . . but never steps in it. The movie never hits us over the head with the answer, and that’s part of its appeal. Does it matter what we look like, what we believe in, or where we come from to be considered human as long as we, as individuals and a society, possess the capability to couple rationale with empathy?
Words © 2000-2020, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).