“What makes us human?” is one of those base existentialisms that we’re all a bit too cynical to actually consider. It’s the type of query that for us to truly acknowledge the significance of, must be presented subtly and in the guise of “art.” It is thusly that Ridley Scott‘s masterpiece Blade Runner is so successful in its theme. Only once you have parted the curtains of a neo-noir and dystopic 2019 Los Angeles, only once you have passed through the door that is Scott’s and Douglas Trumbull’s remarkable achievement in visual effects, only once you’ve tiptoed past Vangelis’ eerily sinister neo-classical score do you arrive at the heart of this Philip K. Dick adaptation. Blade Runner is precisely an interrogation of what it means to be human, or perhaps more specifically, what it means to question this humanity.
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a retired Blade Runner; a cop who hunts down and retires escaped humanoid replicants used “off-world” for menial labor and war. He finds himself pulled begrudgingly back into the fold when a group of next generation replicants massacre a group of humans and flee their colony to the wet darkness of Los Angeles. Deckard is a noir archetype, albeit perhaps less sure-handed. He drinks and scowls and aggressively handles women into their willing submission. And as he slogs his way through the unrecognizable landscape of LA, beneath hoards of flying police cars and back alleys of black market and genetically engineered animal life, he ends up at the massively pyramidical Tyrell Corporation. This is where the replicants are created and where he meets Rachael (Sean Young), this noir’s dame and, herself, a replicant. Deckard slowly puts the pieces together and tracks down the remaining villains: Leon (Brion James), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), Pris (Darryl Hannah), and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the gang’s bizarre, teetering, highly self-conscious leader. Roy’s honest enough quest for biological longevity (the next generation replicant’s fail-safe is a four-year lifespan) makes him very nearly sympathetic, though his sociopathic behavior abruptly dilutes that sympathy. Rutger Hauer’s Roy is psychotic, frightened, powerfully strong and scarier for it, at once highly intelligent and juvenile. It’s one of the film’s rare flaws that he isn’t given more screen time.
The fact that this is essentially Ridley Scott’s third film is staggering. Blade Runner is so competently made, so elegantly cared for in its construction, it sits on Scott’s filmography second only to his preceding film, Alien. Visually Blade Runner is nearly without peer, in the league of such remarkable pre-CG assemblies as 2001 or Star Wars. It’s not perfect, as time has allowed the technology of visual effects to catch up with its goals and newer films are simply closer to reality, but it’s still really, really well done. The Los Angeles landscape has been retrofitted beyond recognition, with towering skyscrapers and labyrinthine passageways of filthy alley. The Tyrell Building is an unforgettable landmark of ostentatious capitalism and as the biggest structure in the film, it appropriately seems to be where all roads are leading.
And Scott’s (and Dick’s) imagined future is perfectly noir; the sun never peering through the sky’s fortification of smog and dust, and the rain falling forever. The setting of the film is couched fully in noir sensibilities. Deckard is a highly capable detective with little else to claim. Alone, a drunk, and a woman perhaps his only salvation. The streets are filled with scowling faces and the environment is thick with a paranoiac sense of eyes. Even inside, the floating spotlights peer through windows and under doors, giving the general sense that absolutely nothing and no one can be trusted.
However, inside all the visual splendor and tonal gloom lies a story simply trying to get at the question of humanity. Deckard’s goal to “retire” the escaped replicants seems simple enough, but as the film progresses and he gradually destroys one after another, our hero is shaken by the notion of murdering murderers. In nearly every way the replicants appear human; their only tell an orange glint on the iris when caught in the right light. (A brief aside: when Roy Batty eventually makes his way into the chambers of his own creator, the divine Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), and kills the man, he does so gruesomely by gouging his eyes into his brain cavity. Scott’s fascination with eyes seems an interesting take on their appointment as the “windows to the soul,” given the nature of this film’s central concern.) Despite the replicant’s mass percentage of humanity, the world in which they exist maintains a healthy grasp on its prejudices, and not every human being feels remorse for the death of one of them. Deckard though seems slowly less and less able to function in his course as their executioner. This seems an appropriate time to briefly discuss the penultimate Fanboy question of “Is Deckard a replicant or not?!” Certainly there are signs that suggest this, and enough time has passed since the film’s inception that there are endless quotes from cast, crew and Scott himself. But as far as the film is concerned, this is never definitively answered. Much like this year’s Inception, the film closes (more or less) with a question. This seems an entirely appropriate handling of that particular quandary. The ambiguity of Deckard’s humanity is vital to his struggle, and without it the subtext would be far less interesting. Along with his love of Replicant Rachael (though this is not nearly so developed or engaging), it is his own uncertainty and the potential fratricide in his actions that remains the truest conflict for Deckard.
At the risk of sounding wholly won by Blade Runner, I should take a moment and discuss it’s one significant shortcoming. Anyone who has spent time looking into the film and its history knows the struggle of The Cuts. Altogether there have been four separate edits of this film in the 28 years since it was born. In 2007, Ridley Scott completed what is known as the “Final Cut,” a version entirely true to the director’s vision. If you purchase the film today this is the version you’ll get, and it’s the version I watched. Despite Ridley Scott’s own hand guiding every last piece of film to its final resting place, the ending of Blade Runner still feels chopped. An unprecedented voice over suddenly appears over the next to last scene, with Deckard giving exposition that feels stilted and unsure. Then he makes his way to his apartment to make a clean getaway with the final living replicant Rachael, leaving us with a presumably happy ending. After the brooding desolation of 98% of the film, this ending feels frustratingly out of place. An ending built by a director less like the early-1980s Ridley Scott who was grieving the loss of his brother to skin cancer, and more like his contemporary, who made 2006’s devoid and saccharine A Good Year. To be sure, Ridley Scott has become one of those unfortunate director’s whose best years are safely behind him, but it’s a shame to see this weak amendment made to such a generally strong film.
Blade Runner will though, of course, remain in the pantheon. It is a landmark and belongs on any number of the “best” lists on which it currently resides. It’s blend of visual spectacularism, unsettling tone and untrusting characters that drive at a basic question of existence is the type of masterful filmmaking that simply cannot be ignored. Despite Ridley Scott’s occasional blunders, Blade Runner maintains his status as a director worth always keeping tabs on.