Blade Runner (1982)
“A humanoid robot is like any other machine; it can fluctuate between being a benefit and a hazard very rapidly. As a benefit, it’s not our problem” (Rick Deckard in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”).
Since its release in 1982, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” has achieved a classic cult status, and is deemed by many to be the most influential science-fiction film ever made, just behind “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). It is loosely based on a book by Philip K. Dick and stars Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young and Edward James Olmos. In the film, set in a distant future, Rick Deckard (Ford), an officer at the special police “Blade-Runner” unit is on the mission to hunt down and “retire” (kill) a number of replicants (or androids) who escaped newly-colonised Mars and now wreak havoc on Earth. The film’s superior attention to detail is undeniable; its visuals are original and mind-blowing; and its “minimalist”, “slow-burning” narrative is also admirable, with Ford and Hauer commanding the screen. However, when it comes to comparing the film to the book by Philip K. Dick, “Blade Runner” falls short of being a philosophical, character-focused and narratively-engaging film it aspires to be.
There are a number of versions of the same film, and I will talk about the final cut, and will also first talk about the narrative, and then the visual brilliance of “Blade Runner”. There are some similarities between the book and the film. In both, Deckard is the one who works for a police unit, and who is assigned a task to destroy replicants who pose as humans. He does this by using the “Voigt-Kampff” test on potential replicants, a test to detect potential human-emotional responses to questions (replicas are deemed not to have human empathy). However, in the film, as in the book, new Nexus-6 replicas are causing problems, because they are harder to detect, and Deckard is tasked with finding and retiring the four particular Nexus-6 replicants: Leon, Roy Batty, Zhora and Pris (there are six for him to “retire” in the book). While doing so, he happens to run into a woman, Rachel, who works for the organisation that designs human-like robots/replicants, and Rachel’s confused identity and Deckard’s strong attraction to her form a large part of the film/book. The great thing here is that “Blade Runner”’s slow-moving narrative both leaves much room for personal reflection, and also for the time to take in all the stunning visuals. The film becomes one of a kind in a way it manages to successfully combine the thrill of the pursuit of galactic criminals, and the two characters’ own dilemmas and identity crises, all in a futuristic, truly visionary setting.
However, despite the film’s exciting premise, it is not as narratively-engaging as the book. The thing to notice here is that the book by Philip K. Dick is full of irony and humour, which are present nowhere in the film. The narrative of the book is also very “cinematic” with its suspense, thrills and surprises, which could have been at least hinted at in the film. In the film, apart from Deckard’s tender infatuation with Rachel, Deckard also tracks down another android Zhora, an exotic dancer, and Betty and Pris (other androids) meet and befriend J.F. Sebastian, a designer of android brains. Betty wants longetivity and pesters his creators. These sequences and the film’s showdown are the whole film in a nutshell, and they do not even come close to the sheer swirl of an adventure which is the plot of the original book. In a mostly action-driven plot of the book, Deckard tracks down other androids, such as Luba, an opera singer, whose human empathy test is fascinating to read, and, then Deckard, embarks on reality-twisting episodes involving a fake police station, impostors, mistaken-identity plots and exciting fighting sequences. The chemistry/relationship between Deckard and Rachel in the book is also multi-dimensional, with them playing lovers and foes, and their situation is more intriguing since Deckard also has a wife named Iran.
The book and the film raise philosophical questions such as, what is it like to be a human/machine?, and what difference does it really make to one if one finds out that he/she is an android if he/she thinks him(her)self a human? However, the book takes the philosophical issue of this discussion way passed the movie’s narrow references and debates it fully. The book’s central preoccupation is animals: fake and real, and this is where the full force of irony of Philip K. Dick comes in. In environment where most animals became extinct, and those which are left are almost priceless, the author asks “if a fake seems authentic enough, does it matter that it is not real?” In the book, Deckard spends his free time trying to buy some real animal, because they are seen as a symbol of status in the society (Deckard keeps an electric sheep on his roof and pretends to his neighbours it is real). Irony and absurdity are at play when such situations arise as mistaking a real cat for a fake, and buying fake food for robotic animals. Also, in the book, the reality is such that people are under the religion of Mercerism, undergoing collective fusion through their empathy boxes, an inventive aspect of the story which makes empathy even more central to the story since replicants cannot participate in fusion. It is not that “Blade Runner” does not have philosophical references (it uses pigeons as symbolising freedom, places mysterious origami and reflects on the implantation of false memories), but the film does feel one-dimensional in comparison to the book’s imaginative force and lacks the depth of its original material.
Another unfortunate aspect of “Blade Runner” is that it does not pay as much attention to the characters as the book does. The film stays with Deckard (Ford), showing him disturbed by weird dreams, which may be false memories, and Rachel is portrayed as a sympathetic victim of her circumstances. However, the book still makes Rachel more interesting and Deckard more intriguing. In the novel, in contrast to Young’s passive representation, Rachel is a bit sly, a bit deceptive and very active. Even J.R. Isidore, with his inner visions, fears and dreams, is more of a character in the book than his cinematic counterpart J.F. Sebastian. Still, the casting choices are great here. Ford may seem like an odd choice, and may at first appear Indiana Jones seeking an adventure in space, but the book does describe Deckard as having the appearance of a “clerk in a bureaucratic office”. This means that Ford’s unassuming charm and inner vulnerabilities work well here. Moreover, his chemistry with Young is very good, who, in turn, is perfectly cast as the black-haired beauty. Who kidnaps the attention at the end of the film is, surely, Roy Batty played by Dutch Rutger Hauer. He is perfectly cast, as is Daryl Hannah in the role of Pris, though she seems too human in the film to be a believable android.
In terms of the cinematography, and the sound/production designs, “Blade Runner” is great. Jordan Cronenweth, the cinematographer, received numerous awards for his work on this film, and he deserved the highest praise. “Blade Runner” was really a film ahead of its time in visualising the future which is so grimly atmospheric. The opening shot of the film is a marvellous shot of a night-skied city, and the city is apocalyptic in nature, polluted and ecologically depleted, with skyscrapers advertising futuristic products and hover-cars crossing the night sky. Perhaps, it is the rainy “moodiness” of the setting which feels so distinct and sets the film apart from other pictures. The attention to detail in “Blade Runner” is second to none. Even an outsider wondering on the production set of the film in 1981 reported back that he was amazed how detailed the production was, from futuristic food created, to whole newspapers written specifically for the set, most of which, sadly, never formed part of the film. The most memorable are the conference room of the Tyrell (Rosen)’s foundation in the film, with its sun/light play giving off a golden shine; J.F. Sebastian’s room, which is akin to a curiosity shop, with its robotic dolls and futuristic appliances; and the whole abandoned apartment complex which forms part of the film’s showdown. In terms of the vision, such films as “The Matrix” (1999) and “The Fifth Element” (1997) later borrowed heavily from “Blade Runner”’s visions and, in terms of the narrative, such films as “Gattaca” (1997) and “Ghost in the Shell” (1995) dipped first into “Blade Runner” before showing themselves to the world. As for the film’s music, Vangelis, a Greek composer, composed the score for “Blade Runner”, and the result is a nuanced and hypnotic piece of music, with Asian notes here and there to show off Deckard’s adventure at the heart of the city’s Chinatown.
It is clear that “Blade Runner” was almost revolutionary, and in every sense. When most other science-fiction films contended themselves with being almost funny, fast-paced action flicks, “Blade Runner” went for a completely different and riskier approach, transporting the audience into the world which is unforgettable the moment you see it, because of all the carefully thought-out visuals and memorable characters. “Blade Runner” was to the 1980s what “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) was to the 1990s, a movie which achieved its cult status because of its undeniable superior quality and thought-provoking material. Thus, it is even more pitiful that, despite the film’s memorable style, it could achieve neither the full philosophical subtlety nor the narrative thrill of the original book. 8/10
“Blade Runner” ends on what it thinks to be a thought-provoking, open-ended note, involving the question as to whether Rick Deckard, our hero bounty-hunter, is himself a replicant. However, the book takes this question and makes it almost central. The references to Deckard’s potential robotic origin are everywhere in the book. For example, in the book, one of the androids, Luba, hints to Deckard that he must be an android himself, because he does not care about other androids being killed (a telling sign of replicants); Deckard also has troubles with his fusion with Mercer (one of the telling signs his empathy being “defective”); and most importantly, Deckard is so unsure of his identity in the book that he specifically buys a real animal to prove that he can take care of it and it can survive under his care (replicants are notoriously incapable of keeping pets).