Friday, March 02, 2012

The Films of 1982: (From the Archives): Blade Runner

Although released to decidedly mixed reviews and audience ennui in the summer of 1982, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner has since ascended to the pinnacle of the sci-fi cinema Valhalla.  In fact, the Scott film is often mentioned in the same breath as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as, perhaps, the greatest sci-fi film yet produced.

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman has written thatBlade Runner is a singular and enthralling experience. Never mind the plot. From its spectacular opening shot, a hellishly beautiful vision of 21st-century Los Angeles, the movie casts a druggy, hypnotic spell.”  

Reviewing the director’s cut of the film The Boston Globe wrote that the film was “a triumph of production design and cinematic mood.

As many reviews suggest, much of Blade Runner's now sterling reputation arises from the film's meticulously-crafted, pioneering production design and dazzling visual presentation.  An heir to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), the 1982 Scott film visualizes a world of corporate control, class warfare, and the next-stage in our understanding of what it means to be man…or machine.  

Or as a special effects guru on the film noted to Richard Corliss in his Time Magazine review, “The environment in the film is almost a protagonist.”

Yet Blade Runner's triumph isn't merely one of forward-thinking, dramatic visualization. The film assiduously echoes the up-to-the-minute social worries of the era in which it was crafted (the 1980s), and obsesses on an issue that remains of great importance in our nation, even today: race.

Set in the future year of 2019 -- in a monolithic, blighted metropolis -- Blade Runner presents a future world in which business and technology have ballooned to titanic proportions and dwarfed the human spirit.

Advertisements for Coca-Cola and other products stand several stories high.  

And as human dwellings reach closer to the very sky itself, the more grand and opulent those residences appear. 

The lucky rich are literally awash in warm golden light, as though access to the sun is itself a perk of wealth. We see this fact visualized in the classical, clean lines of Tyrell's (Joe Turkel) sun-soaked penthouse apartment: a veritable Mount Olympus, and a home not just for a Man, but for a God on Earth.

Meanwhile, far down below on street's a roiling Hell of ugly industry, punk fashion, neon lights, steam, and ubiquitous rain. 

The hungry and the poor toil there like mindless ants, mostly unnoticed by those living in luxury and wealth high above. 

Again, it’s illustrative to consider Metropolis, and the idea there of a split “future” society: rich men above the Earth, living in opulent gardens and residences, while the lower class, the workers, dwell beneath the ground, in a utilitarian city carved out of rock.  Blade Runner takes that status quo, but adds a layer of fantastic new special effects visualizations to it.

Thematically, the world of Blade Runner might best be expressed by a throwaway line featured in the film: “If you're not a cop, you're little people.” 

And if you're not human, if you're a Replicant, you aren't even little people.

Importantly, that dynamic represents the core of the film's race-based statement. That mankind has played God by creating the Replicants, but then steadfastly refused to acknowledge this creation, this child, with the very dignities we all cherish every day: equality and liberty.

Like all underclasses throughout history, the android Replicants in Blade Runner are known by a derogatory slang term: skin-jobs. And Replicants also boast a built-in expiration date that makes them seem less than fully human: they die four years after their "incept date."

As you may well imagine, this fact doesn't sit well with some Replicants, and that's what precipitates much of the action in the film. A cadre of Replicants returns to Earth (from off-world) on a spiritual quest; on a search for more life that, in sub textual terms, might be interpreted as the search for racial equality.  The Replicants don’t want to be classified inferior, their very lives and identities unimportant and unrecognized.  They want equality (and more life)…fucker.

Man Has Made His Match. Now It's His Problem.

In narrative terms, Blade Runner revolves around the hunt and pursuit of six renegade replicants. 

Yep, I wrote six, and that's according to Los Angeles' police chief, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) in explicitly stated dialogue. 

This number is important to note, especially according to one specific interpretation of the film. But more on that reading later.

The man doing the hunting in this case is the laconic, hard-boiled and lonely Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former detective in a special police squad called Blade Runners. Blade Runners are famous for "retiring" skin jobs.

The quarry this time includes Leon (Brion James), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). And yes, that's only four names, even though Bryant specifically mentioned six replicants.

Over the course of his investigation, Deckard questions the latest model of Replicant, a new upgrade built by the Tyrell Corporation named Rachel (Sean Young). "More human than human" as the slogan goes, and Rachel doesn't realize she's actually a machine. She even boasts distinctive memories from her childhood. But these memories are really just clever implants; the memories of "Tyrell's niece."

Deckard soon falls in love with the winsome, confused Rachel and -- depending on which version of the film you see -- also experiences strange dreams of a unicorn in a primeval forest. After hunting down the last of the Replicants, Deckard must decide if he should pursue his romantic relationship with a Replicant.

Meanwhile, the aggrieved Replicants go in search of their God, Tyrell, only to learn that he knowingly created not children...but slaves.

"I Think It Was Manufactured Locally:" 1980s Terrors Lurking in Los Angeles, 2019

Early in the 1980s, many citizens in the United States of America feared that the country had a new, powerful and sinister competitor: Japan.  At the time, that Pacific  nation excelled in industry, manufacturing, and the development of new technologies. 

Importantly, Japan was also the United States' main international creditor in this era, and it benefited financially from a forty-to-fifty-billion dollar trade gap with the United States.

In particular, the Japanese auto industry seemed to be cleaning Detroit's clock. Many World War II veterans who had fought in the Pacific and had witnessed the draconian, brutal behavior of the Japanese in a time of conflict, perceived a new danger to America.

As a character in Die Hard (1988) knowingly jokes, "Pearl Harbor didn't work" so Japan was conquering the United States economically: with "VCRs." There were many Americans of the Greatest Generation who felt precisely that way in the early 1980s, and my beloved, now-deceased paternal grandfather was one of them. He never bought a Japanese car.

Although structurally and visually a deliberate reprise of the 1940s film noir (an era, incidentally of actual rather than economic war with Japan), one of Blade Runner's many undercurrents involves this 1980s incursion of Japanese business interests in future America.

In particular, it appears that in 2019, American business (always ahead of the curve and looking for ways to stay alive....), has assimilated Japanese business interests into its very structure so as to continue turning huge profits and remain on the top of the food chain.  

Or, as authors Douglas Kellner, Flo Leibowitz and Michael Ryan wrote in their essay, Blade Runner: A Diagnostic Critique (Jump Cut, February 1985, pages 6-8):

"Crowds of people mill through rain-soaked streets, evoking common fears about overpopulation and "foreigners" overrunning future cities. On the East and West coasts of the U.S., for example, Japanese ramen and sushi cafes have replaced U.S. fast food chains, and visibly prominent are many Asian merchants and street people. The film here seems to articulate paranoia about Japanese capitalism "taking over" the United States. Nevertheless, the film’s city (Los Angeles) seems under the hegemony of U.S. capitalism, which now seems to have incorporated its rivals into its structure. The society’s economic structure combines small, street-merchant-style, "free enterprise" with paternalistic capitalist control. Most of the merchants in the film are Asian or European, whereas the corporate president and executives of the Tyrell Corporation are all North Americans."

So Blade Runner acknowledges the timely fear of a Japanese take-over in America, but puts a spin on it. Even the resourceful Japanese have become slaves to a Corporate Nation – the 1% -- in the future.

Similarly, Replicants -- constructed piece-meal in Mom/Dad, Asian-controlled shops such as the Eye Factory run by Chew (James Hong) -- are another symbol of Big Business run amok in the future of Blade Runner; of the consumer culture of the 1980s carried to the next level. It's a world where human beings use other beings (androids) for pleasure, to fight wars, and to perform menial tasks that humans apparently no longer wish to do.

And yes, this description today rather uncannily mirrors how immigrants are viewed in modern American society. Interestingly, the film suggests that Big Business will go along with a new influx of workers from other nations, and even co-opt that work force so to stay on "top," literally, of the situation (living high, high above it, in palatial skyscrapers).

"Is This to Be An Empathy Test?" A Replicant Civil Rights Movement in Blade Runner

In the World War II era, a dedicated drive towards equality for all U.S. citizens was begun here at home. The 1940s was the epoch of Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, which opened up new job possibilities for African-Americans. It was also the era in which white-only primaries were judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Importantly, the noir era in film was also the age of Truman's National Committee on Civil Rights, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and the election of Chicago's William Dawson in the House of Representatives. There was still a long way to go, but the long march towards racial equality was beginning in earnest.

Blade Runner explicitly discusses race and the history of race inequality in America. As I noted above, it speaks deliberately and forcefully in the film language (noir) of the 1940s, an era when race was a concern in the United States as enumerated above.

More than that, the Replicants in the film are described in historically racist terms, ones involving the nature of their skin, not the quality of their character. They are not "colored" or "negro," but "skin-jobs. Replicants are not considered "fully" human, and again, this reflects our very history: In 1789, in the Constitution, African-Americans were considered 3/5s of a person...not the equivalent of a white person, in other words. 

Why is this important?  If you see someone as being less than fully human (like, say an "illegal"), that descriptor makes it much easier to enslave them, or to deny them basic human rights. In the film, Roy Batty acknowledges this fact and contextualizes his experience, and the experience of the Replicants…as slavery. He discusses with Deckard what "it is to be a slave."

I suppose there is no need to describe Deckard's hunt of the Replicants as a "high-tech lynching" but certainly, the Replicants are treated harshly as a matter of course in 2019. Deckard shoots Zhora in the back, exposing the ugly truth that Replicants have no legal rights in this society. They are not arrested and afforded due process of law. They are not innocent until proven guilty. 

Instead, Replicants are shot on sight because of what they are, not because of their conduct. This is the essential characteristic of institutional racism: denying people freedom not because of their behavior; but because of their origin, skin color and heritage. 

If you desire to delve deeply into the visuals of Blade Runner, consider that Zhora is murdered while crashing through a series of transparent glass barriers, a metaphor, perhaps, for the oft-mentioned "glass ceiling" that keeps racial/ethnic minorities from achieving high level positions in society.

Leon attempts to kill Deckard and says to him, "painful to live in fear, isn't it?" And that too is a crucial part of the racial equation. For the Replicants, it's the knowledge that they can be shot and killed at any time simply for living in a city where the authorities deem they do not belong. For Latinos in Arizona today, it's the knowledge that you can be asked for your papers by armed police simply because of your skin color.

You can travel pretty deep down the rabbit hole with this interpretation of the film, if that's your inclination. There's a test in Blade Runner for determining if a person is human or Replicant, and it is called a "Voigt-Kampff" Test. That name sounds uncomfortably like Hitler's manifesto Mein Kampf, doesn't it? And when we think of the Nazis, we remember their belief in racial purity, the subjugating of "lesser" races, right? The Voight-Kampf functions as a tool to identify one such lesser race: the Replicant.

And interestingly, what this test seeks is the "empathy" response in the iris, in the eyeball.  "Empathy," of course, has become a racial code word in America today, as we saw during the last two Supreme Court justice nominating processes. What Blade Runner doesn't make plain, however, is if Replicants possess a surfeit or lack of empathy in their iris responses.  What do humans possess?  More or less empathy than a Replicant?

Fnally, what's abundantly clear in Blade Runner is that Replicants are people too. They are, as the saying goes, more human than human.  They love, they mourn, and they want what all human beings want: more life. In fact, the Replicants undergo a real spiritual quest in the film. They seek to find their God, Tyrell, and petition him for more life. They seek forgiveness from him too, at least after a fashion, for their brutal methods of self-preservation. In answer, they are told by Tyrell, Our Corporate God, that they have done nothing "the God of biomechanics wouldn't let you into heaven for."

Of course, the Replicants then kill God, but the relevant point is that Replicants, like humans, seek to understand their very nature, and turn to the divine for that knowledge.

Roy Batty does even more than that, however. He not only seeks answers from his God, but, ultimately, shows mercy to his enemies, which is something you cannot say for the police in Blade Runner. Batty could kill Deckard...but chooses to save his life instead.  In his final moment of life, he decides that life is too beautiful to snuff out, even in an enemy.

In this beautiful and emotionally-wrenching climactic scene of Blade Runner, Batty is depicted grasping a white dove as his time on Earth runs out. 

This bird is a representation of the Holy Spirit in Christian Mythology, and a symbolic signifier that Batty is truly one of God's creatures and, through his mercy, has earned the right to be considered such. 

When the dove flies heavenward, released by Batty, the image suggests that Batty's soul has fled his body; that he was more than just a machine.  Like all of us, he possesses a spirit.

You've Done A Man's Job, or Less Human Than Human: The Deckard Equation

One of the key questions regarding Blade Runner involves its protagonist, Deckard. Director Ridley Scott has suggested that Deckard is, in fact, a Replicant himself. Harrison Ford has gone on record as saying he believes the opposite, that Deckard is human.

As in all great art, a case can probably be made either way.

If Deckard is a Replicant, then he is clearly "passing" as a human being, and that seems to fit in with the film's racial overtones.  

Indeed, there are passages of dialogue in the film that hint at Deckard's mechanical nature. In particular, Gaff (Edward James Olmos) tells Deckard after Batty is dead that the blade runner performed a "man's job." In other words, a job worthy of a man, or a human being.  This description could be interpreted to mean that the Replicant Deckard has performed as well as a human would under similar circumstances. It is thus a race-centric remark (Hey, you did good….for a black guy!) and thus an acknowledgment of Deckard's genetic origin.

Also, Gaff leaves behind at Deckard's apartment a small origami Unicorn.  In the director's cut of Blade Runner, Deckard dreams of a unicorn in the forest. If Gaff is aware that all Replicants are encoded with the unicorn dream as part of their unusual genetic make-up, then he has left behind the origami unicorn to help Deckard understand the truth about himself. If only Deckard can put it all together...

In the final battle at the Bradbury building, Batty also says to Deckard "let's see what you're made of," as if there is a question about Deckard truly is made of, genetically-speaking. 

Well, what is Deckard made of?

The following fight scene suggests that our hero is made of much the same stuff as Batty. 

Notice that in the ensuing fight, Scott's camera catches both Deckard and Batty mending damaged hands at roughly the same time, through the art of cross-cutting. 

This editing choice could represent a subtle, visual connection. Both men share something in common: an injury. 

On one level this could simply be an indication that a Replicant boasts the same survival instinct as a human does.

On another level, it could mean that these men share a different kind of "kinship," Replicant-hood, if that's a word. 

Also, it's important to note that both Batty and Deckard are slaves, though in service of different masters. But this too could be interpreted either way. To demonstrate, perhaps, that the gulf between human and Replicant is not so wide; or more pointedly, to sub-textually suggest that both men are Replicants.

Lastly, remember that Bryant discussed six free Replicants.  Yet the movie depicts four Replicants, and notes that one (the fifth?) was killed attempting to cross a border, a fence (a death which again, reeks of racial connotations in today's America).

That leaves one Replicant remaining, right?

So who is the sixth and final Replicant?  It can't be Rachel, because when Bryant conveys the story of the six Replicants to Deckard, Rachel has not yet left the custodianship of Tyrell.  Therefore, by process of elimination, the sixth Replicant must be Deckard himself.

Finally, the very form that Blade Runner utilizes -- the film noir detective story -- suggests Deckard's mechanical heritage. In the best film noir movies, the investigation by a detective leads, inevitably, to some shattering personal revelation.

Consider Johnny Favorite's journey of self-discovery in a Blade Runner contemporary, Angel Heart (1987), or the shattering revelation by Faye Dunaway's character in Polanski's Chinatown (1974). 

In noir, we must conclude that the ultimate discovery is not who-did-it.

Rather, it is "who am I?," the discovery or assertion of identity

If Deckard is indeed a Replicant, then the film adheres closely to this noir format and tradition That's ultimately why I favor this interpretation (that Deckard is a machine); it seems encoded in the film's very DNA.

On the other side of the equation, if Deckard is not a replicant, then, at the very least the film's racial overtones carry an optimistic message to go out on. If even a Blade Runner can fall in love with a Replicant, as Deckard does here, then there is hope yet for the human race to overcome bigotry and prejudice. There is some hope of future equality for these artificial people.

But whether Deckard is a Replicant or a human being, Blade Runner remains a brilliantly-conceived and dynamically-executed motion picture. By co-opting the film noir approach, Ridley Scott's film creates not only a daring vision of the future, but subconsciously evokes a time period in American history when racism was more up-front and blatant than it is today. The film noir approach thus grants some breathing room for the film to contextualize the Replicant experience of 2019 in language that we all understand and recognize, at least subconsciously.

Blade Runner is so packed with fascinating ideas and subtexts (like the quest for immortality; for example), that it's almost impossible to do the film any sort of justice in one blog post.  As critic Rita Kempley wrote in The Washington Post (back in 1992): 

"Every viewing of "Blade Runner" brings new discoveries..."


  1. Cool review, John. Definitely insightful concerning the Japanese corporate elements, which is something I’ve always vaguely recognized but was never able to fully articulate, not even to myself. However, I find rather suspect the whole ‘Deckard-Replicant’ theory. A number of factors to consider:

    In the Director’s Cut, Bryant mentions a rogue group of six Replicants (three males, three females), one of which was killed while trying to break into Tyrell Corporation. But in the Final Cut -- the most recently altered "official" version, as decided by Ridley Scott -- a different take is used where Bryant clearly states that two were initially electrocuted and killed, leaving only four, Leon, Zhora, Pris and Roy. This doesn’t eliminate Deckard as a Replicant per se, only that he wasn’t part of the rouge six; honestly, I don’t see how that particular plotline would have made sense either way.

    How does a Replicant go from being a recent off-world fugitive to a police detective with his own lived-in apartment? I suppose that, after capturing Deckard, perhaps even as one of the two who allegedly died, the police could have given him the "Total Recall" treatment, thereby using one Replicant to hunt down the rest, but it all seems like an awful big stretch. Nothing really adds up holistically, given not only what is depicted in the film, but how. Deckard is clearly not as strong or fast as the Replicants. Fisticuffs, he gets his ass handed to him by Zhora, Leon, Pris and Roy accordingly. Why would this Replicant be physically weaker? A last minute alteration by the police/Tyrell? Eh, I don’t know, that’s pretty thin.

    But, okay, there’s still the idea that Deckard is a separate Replicant altogether, specialized to fit in as human but with the senses to detect other Replicants. Except...

    The fact that Gaff’s origami was a unicorn design was originally of no significance, only that the origami itself indicated that he had tracked Rachel to Deckard’s apartment but then decided let her live, to let bygones be bygones, so-to-speak. For his Director’s Cut, Scott, with a change in conceit, cleverly realized then seized an opportunity to make something of the paper design by inserting stock footage from Legend (a unicorn running through the forest) for Deckard’s newly rendered -- through simple dissolve editing -- connective dream sequence. Voilà.

    Now, this doesn’t negate the theory that Deckard is Replicant made. Not at all. So what if the dream sequence was added post hoc? A thematic through-line can be just as valid editorially. Yet said themes are precisely why I’m not on board with Deckard being a Replicant, at least not entirely. In my view it kinda, sorta, halfway defeats the purpose. If Deckard learns the value of Replicant life only by discovering that he is a Replicant himself, then he hasn’t really learned anything. Sure, he comes to respect the rights and freedoms of non-human sentient life, but ultimately because he’s forced to by way of revelation. I think it works even better that he learns as a human, from the human perspective, that he is able to think and feel beyond and across differences; for the very meaning of “empathy” is to emotionally and intellectually relate to another, to someone who is not you, not like you. This should be a human ideal. As you suggest, it also ties in better with Deckard and Rachel’s romance. Furthermore, there’s something fetishly fascinating about their heated love scene -- the psychology of sex with the artificial (as continued from Alien) -- that is almost completely undermined by having both be Replicant.

    As for the dream sequence, I still think it works regardless. It works in a different light. Perhaps there is a higher spiritual, metaphysical link between Man and Replicant. Perhaps Gaff is a unique Replicant all his own, sharing a special subconscious with a very human Deckard. Blade Runner is a very lyrical movie, who knows?

  2. Hi Cannon,

    I think you make an excellent argument regarding Deckard as Replicant. I think that in very broad strokes, the idea that he is a Replicant works. Primarily because it incorporates the noir elements of the film (the search for self, namely).

    But on a detailed level, you're right to point out inconsistencies if that's the case. I totally agree.

    I especially sympathize and agree with you that if Deckard is a replicant, that fact takes something away from the film's argument that humans and replicants, though different, can get along and interact. That's a great point, my friend. Very well debated, and I see what you mean.


  3. I'll reiterate some of what I said back in 2010 regarding your reprise of this film examination as it still applies:

    As a native Angeleno, this film resonates with many who live here. Ridley Scott's vision, and visuals, seem to be coming true to an extent. Already (and an ongoing controversy locally), we have building ads that almost meet the grand parameters on display in BLADE RUNNER. As well, because of globalization, many of precepts (certainly the co-optioning and the use of whatever cheap labor is available) ring true even more now. The racial and elite metaphors you discuss in the post remain timely and apt. Even though the film is a product of the 80's, the context and brilliance of the piece manages to transcend the almost 30 years for today's audience.

    I've always thought the replicant tale and struggle that's told here was symbolic of our own human realization of our mortality. The "I want more life, fucker!" and the answer given was suggestive of our learned awareness that everything has limits (even God's). What a great examination and analysis you've written for a truly great film, John.

  4. Hi Le0pard13:

    I totally agree with your excellent formulation:

    "Even though the film is a product of the 80's, the context and brilliance of the piece manages to transcend the almost 30 years for today's audience."

    I suppose that's why Blade Runner is being resurrected as a franchise, right? Because so much of it still has currency today. I just hope that a new film can also be forward looking, somehow, if that's possible.

    I love your Angeleno's angle on BR, and think it's incredibly important, vis-a-vis the "development" of that city into a real life BR metropolis. I think it's happening even faster than anyone expected.

    I also like how you see the film's quest for immortality. It is, indeed, our quest too.

    Great comment,

  5. Anonymous8:17 AM

    I enjoy your reviews, though I differ with you on a lot politically. One aspect I would clarify is your use of the 3/5 clause as an example of bigotry. The reason for the 3/5 clause was to leave the fight against slavery for another day. The Constitution was going to be derailed because the slave owners of the South wanted to count their slaves fully which would have given them enough delegates to permanently block the abolition of slavery. The 3/5 clause was a compromise that allowed the ratification of the Constitution to proceed, while the amendment mechanisms were in place to screws slavery at a later time. Frederick Douglas, upon studying the history of the 3/5 clause, argued that the clause was decidedly not racist because it ensured that society would have the mechanisms to correct it's course, while preventing the current status quo from having the ability to permanently block reform.

    Ultimately we need to acknowledge wrongs on an individual level and change society that way. That is the power of a character like Decker. It is a better argument for Decker as human, because he is an "authority" figure, perhaps the first one, to see and acknowledge the right of life for the replicants. "Authority" has started to see the wrong, and can start the hard work of correcting society.

    Great review of a fantastic movie. Thank you for expressing what I often don't even realize I am getting out of a movie.

    Waxhaw, NC

  6. Hi Spencer,

    Don't worry if we disagree politically. I have a lot of friends in real life, and here on the blog, who are of varying political stripe. It would be boring if we all believed the exact same thing. This way, I can learn from you, and you can learn from me.

    Thanks for the valuable history lesson on the 3/5s thing. I must confess, I didn't know that, but it proves what I often do write here, in terms of movies: context is important.

    I also loved this formulation: "It is a better argument for Decker as human, because he is an "authority" figure, perhaps the first one, to see and acknowledge the right of life for the replicants. "Authority" has started to see the wrong, and can start the hard work of correcting society."

    I think you make an excellent point there. It's important, if society is to change (and accept the Replicants as sentient, living beings with rights), that the authority/establishment see the truth about them. Deckard is, perhaps, the first to do so. Very cool thought, and your argument makes total sense to me.

    best wishes,