Before we begin, fair warning: I am going to write a lot about this brilliant film. This means that I may give away details that will ruin surprises for first-time viewers. But for me, the execution is always more important than the details. But if you feel otherwise, please find another subject on this site to read about.
(Oh, and for those who are still too inexperienced, ignorant, or just stupid to understand what the phrase “ahead of your time” really means, this page on one fansite clears it all up.)
There is no way to dispute this: Blade Runner is not just a classic, but one for the ages. If an alien race landed on our planet and asked us to justify why they should not regard us as rabbit-like pests, Blade Runner would be among the films that a good, smart President would show them. In contrast to A Scanner Darkly, which I recently wrote a lot of words about here, I have also read the novella upon which Blade Runner was based. Aside from the novella’s title, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, I will refrain from further comment about the two in comparative terms until a better time.
Although it was made under extremely trying conditions that have since become legend in the industry, Blade Runner is not exactly a perfect film. Probably its only real mistake in structure is the opening title that sets a specific date for the events. The film is set in November of the year 2019. This is a violation of the first rule of making a science fiction film in any era: never be specific with the time that it is taking place in. Especially not when the time entails as radical changes to the appearance and structure of the world as Blade Runner entails from the get go. There are two ways to defend this mistake, however. Probably the simplest way to defend this error is that at a couple of points in the film, characters make references to specific “past” dates as part of a plot point that is very important for reasons I shall elaborate on in due course. Another way to defend this error is to simply say that although it is a pretty big boo-boo in the scheme of things, the film still recovers nicely, and then some, from it. Also worth noting is that Blade Runner shares this flaw with Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?. Early editions of the novella set the story in 1992 (aka colossal blunder and then some). Later editions place the story in 2021, which is still way too soon to explain some of the technological advancements described in both novella and film.
But all of that goes out of the window as soon as we see the first shot. A camera on a crane slowly tracks over a large model representing the skyline of Los Angeles. As aerial cars known in the Blade Runner universe as “spinners” move to and fro over the city, we soon see inside an office at a futuristic corporate building. As a rather large man enters the room, we see a suited man at one end of the table. A most peculiar conversation follows, in which one of the participants tries to run a test on the other. The other is an employee by the name of Leon Kowalski, played memorably by the late Brion James. For several minutes, Leon manages to confound the suited man attempting to question him. At one point, Leon asks the man, whom he addresses as “mister Holden” if he makes up the questions or if they are written down for him. After more questions, ending with one where Leon is asked to describe good things about his mother, Leon goes into a mild rage and shoots Holden. We are not even five minutes into the film, and already those who have missed the opening crawl have an inkling that something is off.
The opening crawl is very brief, describing how the science and mechanics of creating artificial lifeforms has advanced to the point where artificial Humans are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Only their superior strength or resilience, and their generally superior cognitive abilities, make the difference completely obvious. At first after this advancement, these machines that have come to be termed Replicants were generally used as soldiers, and for off-world slave labour. But after a bloody revolt by some Replicants who wanted more out of life, Replicants were deemed illegal on Earth under penalty of death. Special policemen known as Blade Runners are tasked with discovering and terminating Replicants that have come to Earth for whatever reason. So after Leon dispatches the Blade Runner that has been sent to kill him, we zoom to another part of the city, where we get our first faceful of the protagonist who will guide us through the rest of the story. Rick Deckard is portrayed by Harrison Ford, who in recent (at the time) years had found a burst of fame in a couple of films that were either directed or partly produced by George Lucas. Having worked with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Ford had some insight into working with eccentric people by this point. The manner in which he plays Deckard benefits a great deal from this knowledge.
At this point, it is also worth mentioning that no less than four distinct versions of Blade Runner have been released. All four were made available in a collector’s boxed set of the film on DVD, Blu-ray Disc, and even the very much now-defunct HD-DVD. When released in theatres in 1982, Warner Bros. had a bit of a panic attack based on those lovely verminous things called focus groups, and asked director Ridley Scott to assemble an edit of the film with noir-style voiceovers by Harrison Ford and (*gag*) a “happy ending”. The most significant thing about the boxed set is that it contains what Scott deems to be the Final Cut of the film. Gone are the voiceovers and the “happy ending”. I will not make any bones about this. I hate the theatrical cut. The film was a box office failure in 1982, and many elements peculiar to the theatrical edition of the film leave no doubt as to why. The voiceover is probably the worst of the lot, but I will get to that in a moment.
Another reason this film pings all of my pongs is because numerous characters in it bear more of a resemblance to autistic adults than has ever been the case before or since. A common defence of one Ronald Bass turd-fling is that nobody ever made films about being autistic before. Bullshit. Now, whilst the majority of the characters that resemble autistic adults in this film resemble Powell aspies, the point remains the same. Two of the characters who do not resemble Powell aspies, on the other hand, are introduced in this kerbside diner scene. The first, Rick Deckard, we have already delved into just a tad. The other, who helps set the story in motion, is a police officer who is known only by the name Gaff. Gaff is portrayed by one Edward James Olmos, a Hungarian actor who is known for playing a number of quirky support roles like this one. Although he only gets a total of about six minutes of screentime (the running times of each version of the film are a couple of minutes on either side of 115 minutes), his character is one that audiences remember very easily. Again, I will elaborate further on the reasons in due course.
The scene in which M. Emmet Walsh is introduced as the police captain, Bryant, provides the clearest example of just how bone-headed the thinking behind the voiceover narrative really was. As Harrison Ford walks into the office and hears Walsh speak about him going out and terminating four “skin jobs”, we hear Ford in narration explaining to the audience that Bryant is a rather ignorant clown, the sort of police captain that used to “call black men ‘niggers'” (the voiceover script’s words, not mine). This, when I heard it through the magic of lossless audio for the first time on BD, prompted me to roar out “oh… really?” in a similar manner to how Brian Cox does at one point in X2. Look, marketroids, I know your job has being legally retarded as a requirement, but please do not assume on that basis that everyone else who is going to see this film is, too. Fortunately, Walsh, and the rest of the film, come off far better in the “Director’s” and Final Cuts.
As I mentioned in my remarks about A Scanner Darkly, part of the challenge for both director and casting agent is to find the right person to play each part. Whilst every role proved challenging to cast or work with to one degree or another, one noted exception was Rutger Hauer, who played Roy Batty, the leader of the four Replicants that Deckard is tasked with hunting down. It started out a little whacked-out. Apparently, the casting agent saw Hauer in a number of Paul Verhoeven films, including Turks Fruit. This led the agent to recommend Hauer to director Ridley Scott, who was a bit taken aback when Hauer turned up to their first meeting dressed in the kind of outfit that Brad Pitt wears throughout Fight Club. But the agent stuck to their guns, pointing out to Scott that Hauer was just fukking with him (as Hauer was apparently known for in those days). A sit-down at which the script was read through proved that the casting agent’s wisdom was uncanny. It is not every day that an actor sits across the room from the screenwriter, ad libs part of a major speech, and leaves said screenwriter absolutely awed. The “I’ve seen things” speech is one of the most powerful moments in science fiction film, if not film period, and much of that is thanks to Hauer. Little bits of the speech seen in the film are Hauer‘s ad-libs, but it is not just the words he says. It is the way he says them.
You will recall that I mentioned there are numerous portrayals of autistic adults in Blade Runner that, in spite of being unintended by the creative decision-makers on the film, knock the crap out of deliberate attempts in terms of accuracy. After one key scene in which Deckard successfully hunts and kills one of the replicants, Leon comes out of seemingly nowhere and proceeds to beat the everloving shit out of Deckard. In the prior conversation Leon has had with Holden, it is easy to get the impression that Leon is somewhat intellectually inferior. He constantly interrupts Holden with questions, answers unasked questions, and just generally keeps steering the conversation away from matters at hand. Well, during his tussle with Deckard, Leon is reciting philosophical platitudes that make one wonder. Is the “mental level C” rating we saw in a display of Leon’s profile information supposed to be relative to what Humans expect? Or just other Replicants? Sadly, Leon is killed before we ever get any real chance to find out, but one of the virtues of Blade Runner is that, unlike many recent films that pose as science fiction, Blade Runner does not insist on feeding all of its answers to the audience. Thus, when things like who the Replicants are or may well be in this whole setup (beyond the five pointed-out cases, I mean), it is that much more rewarding.
A crucial point upon which the entire plot turns is that Replicant development is about to enter a new critical phase. At the beginning of the film, we are told that Replicants only live four years. Whether this is due to the limitations of the replication process or by design is mostly left ambiguous throughout the film. Bryant hints that it was by design. You see, after about four years, Replicants are said to learn to feel emotions in a way that will make them completely indistinguishable from Humans. So Bryant figures that the manufacturers put in the four year lifespan as a safety measure. But in conversations with Replicant designer Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), it is hinted that perhaps the manner in which Replicants are made simply allows no other option. Regardless of which version is “true”, Tyrell also says in different words that one of the problems in controlling Replicants is that their lack of a childhood and adolescence worth of memories makes it more difficult for them to control impulses and the vestigal feelings they have. This is clear in many scenes with Leon, where he resembles a six-foot-five ten year old boy who has just been told he has a terminal illness and will only live another year or so. Tyrell’s solution is deceptively simple. Give the Replicants artificial memories that soothe and abate their confusions, and it will be easier to control them. As an example of this, he offers up Rachael (Sean Young), a Replicant who has been subjected to this process.
Romantic relationships in films, novels, or indeed any narrative-driven media, are difficult things to construct. One has to build credible motivations for the characters, and in the case of film, one needs to cast actors who can achieve “chemistry”. That is, they can effectively emote in the ways required to sell the illusion that they really are their characters, and that said characters love one another. If I made this sound really difficult, well, it is not as easy as it might sound, either. Especially not when the relationship in question is meant to drive significant parts of the film. But one quirk of the story that both Harrison Ford and Sean Young benefit from is that both characters have been set up (albeit very subtly in the former case) to demonstrate profound difficulties in coping with their emotions. You see, when two actors are pretending to be “normal people” in love, and they have zero chemistry together, it shows because they are meant to be acting out normal emotions. Make one or both characters say… victims of child abuse who suffer severe PTSD, just for instance, and the tolerance level for how “weird” their behaviour looks to the viewer goes way up. Not that anyone in this part of the film goes overboard with that mechanism. As Stephen King wrote in his introduction to the expanded version of The Stand, there is a different between doing it right, and being downright vulgar.
There are two other women in Blade Runner that receive any detailed examination (most of the men you see in the film are pretty much living wallpaper, too, so do not take this as an invitation to cry about discrimination). Both are completely unlike Rachael in that they are designed from the get-go to be capable of immense violence. One is, as Bryant briefs Deckard, trained for “an off-world kick-murder squad”. That Replicant goes by the name of Zhora. Zhora is portrayed by Joanna Cassidy (no relation to the giant of a man named Ted). If the name or the face look familar, it is because Joanna also played the leading lady in another groundbreaking piece by the name of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Joanna‘s screentime in Blade Runner is about equal to that of Edward James Olmos. But as with Edward, the screenwriter also does Joanna the service of allowing her to make good use of it.
Zhora is the first of the four Replicants that Deckard actually manages to track down, using old-fashioned detective work. When he does find her, well, let us call a spade a spade here. It is a strip club. As one would be less surprised to see with a woman who is physically fit enough to do what “kick-murder” sounds like can guess, Zhora manages to fit right in an occupation where she dances around in a state of undress for the benefit of onlookers. I have my own opinions and thoughts concerning the existence of this trade, but this is not the time for them.
I would have liked to see more development of the Zhora character, and interaction between her and the other Replicants. Especially the two men. Although Roy Batty is of a higher class in intellectual terms, I believe a battle between the two would progress in quite an interesting manner. Neither Rutger Hauer nor Joanna Cassidy were exactly images of youth when the film was made, but they both bring a physical presence to their roles that, much like Brion James and to a somewhat smaller extent Harrison Ford, say very loudly that they cannot be fukked with. Given that the mechanism setting the plot in motion is one man being coerced into the task of hunting down and terminating a group of four, this is a very important thing to be able to get out of your actors.
The other woman in the group, Pris. Well, let us put it this way. She gets far more screentime, is far less enjoyable to look at, and far less enjoyable to listen to. I do not know Daryl Hannah from Eve. For all that I know, she could be the most wonderful woman on Earth. But man, does she ever rub me up the wrong way in every film that I have seen her in. Perhaps it has something to do with her choices in terms of roles. Calling the film Splash irritating is an understatement, although that is mostly not her fault. And the less I say about the Kill Bill films, and Excess Verbalmasurbation’s ego, the better.
The difference, I think, between those characters and Hannah‘s character in Blade Runner, is the presence of a second and vestigal third dimension. The irritation she does bring in this case is actually intentional. Her character is designed that way. It does not help acquit her in any way, but it does contribute to the story being told. Like Zhora, Pris is meant to be of a physical level equal to that of Zhora and Batty (Leon’s would be a teensy bit higher). But in terms of intellect, she is also said, like Zhora, to be above Leon but below Batty. Unfortunately, the rest of the character’s appearance in the film does not lend much weight to that. Particularly her confrontation towards the film’s ending with Deckard. Given that even Leon, a mental level C Replicant, spouts off deep philosophical musings as if they were grocery lists, the lines given to Pris make it easier to understand why the non-canon novel The Edge Of Human suggests that Pris was in reality an insane Human who believed herself to be a Replicant.
The propensity of people to come up with theories that do not make sense is an interesting thing, is it not? Anyway, Deckard’s confrontation with Pris and Batty is quite a cooker in terms of maintaining tension from start to finish. In physical terms, the outcome of the fights are almost always in doubt. In fact, it is only because of an inexplicably silly thing that Pris does that she loses. I will not elaborate on it here for those who have yet to see the film for themselves, but fellow Powell types who have experienced the magic of this film already know what I mean. Pris also does a lot, and I mean a lot of shrieking in the fight. I think part of the problem I have with the character is simply that she screeches and shrieks so much that it makes it difficult to focus on what she is actually doing whenever she is making the sound.
But in a way, when Deckard actually gets the upper hand on her, this turns out to be a good thing in storytelling terms. The way Pris flops around like an epileptic being electrocuted is quite frightening to behold, and gives a great window into what each of the characters in the film feel as we see them meet their end.
And when Batty finds Pris lying against a wall of the dilapidated building that J.F. Sebastian used to call home, his reaction, when viewed in context of the “rules” that the film has subtly set up, makes it very apparent to the clued-in viewer that a big part of what motivates him in the quest he pursues throughout the film (“I want more life… father”) is that he does not have very long left to live. He knows that he is meant to feel sad when he sees his allies die vainly in the pursuit of his goal, and is unable to detach himself from that in the manner that a soldier would regard as an important survival skill. So he sublimates the emotions he feels in two different directions. The way Rutger Hauer effects this, it becomes exceptionally frightening. The less obvious manner is by directing as much rage as he can towards Harrison Ford‘s character. Harrison is no Steve Urkel type (in fact, one of the reasons this film is so much more accurate at portraying the autistic is because it religiously avoids this pathetic stereotype). But they say an actor’s biggest test of mettle is when they are asked to portray emotions or thoughts that do not paint their character and thus possibly them in the best light. As indicated earlier, M. Emmet Walsh passes this test with flying colours. So too does Harrison Ford. In his scenes of confrontation with all four Replicants, he is asked to portray his character in a cowardly way (shooting an unarmed Replicant woman in the back), a frustrated and passive way (any time he speaks to Bryant), or a weak and woefully inadequate way (his confrontations with the other three Replicants). More on this in a second.
During the establishment of the film’s final act, Batty’s quest takes him and his cohorts to the doorstep of a fellow who goes by the name of J.F. Sebastian. Sebastian is played by William Sanderson. A testament to how bloody awesome Sanderson is as an actor is that I watched him for three seasons in True Blood without realising until halfway through season three that J.F. Sebastian and the ageing Sheriff Bud Dearborne are in fact played by exactly the same man. Of course, it helps that in the writing, the characters are about as alike as dog shit and veal, and the gap of twenty-six years between the two performances also contributes, but Sanderson also aces the test I was just speaking of. J.F. Sebastian is a weakling among a cast mostly consisting of characters that would make what we jokingly call alpha men shit themselves in fear. Sanderson‘s portrayal, however, succeeds in making the audience really care about him because, just as the Replicants cannot help what they are, he conveys in just the right manner that neither can his character. I mean, honestly. Your character is a 4-F, and I do not mean 4-F in the same way that I am 4-F. When meeting with two characters whom 1-As shake in fear at, I think J.F. Sebastian’s mixture of overwhelming curiosity and fear is nailed and then some by William Sanderson. So like I say to him every time I see him in True Blood, well done.
Now, when Batty and Pris meet up for the first time in J.F. Sebastian’s home, Batty has the rather unfortunate task of informing Pris that Zhora and Leon are no more. The difference in the way the two actors demonstrate emotions here also gives the viewer a very interesting clue that Pris has much further to go before her lifespan expires. During one point of the conversation, Batty assumes an expression that brings to mind a two year old being divested of his favourite toy. This prompts Pris to ask him what is wrong, which of course brings out the bad news concerning Zhora and Leon. This is punctuated by a statement that “there is only us now”, which brings out a line from Pris that Daryl Hannah doubtlessly has been wanting to equal ever since: “then we’re stupid and we’ll die”. Come on, 1980s punkers, where was our song with that as a title, or at least a lyric? The society that you have been criticising (mostly in excellent ways, I might add) can best be summed up with those six words.
All kidding aside, I mentioned before how Batty has a speech near the end of the film that has been remembered by science fiction fans and film buff for every moment since. In the previously-linked parody page, it is made out that Batty yacks on and on about his life. This is false. Batty spares Deckard a certain and excruciating death because Batty, with the realisation that he has mere minutes left to live, finally groks why all of his victims up to this point have fought him so hard in order to live, despite how futile it was. Because he understands that knowing one is going to die in a matter of moments is one of the most awful things a person can go through. (For the record, the original theatrical cut, care of the voiceover that Harrison Ford clearly wanted no part of, spells this all out for us and thus kicks the finest moment of the film right in the nuts.)
At one key point in the film, Deckard is shown either dreaming of or imagining in his mind’s eye a unicorn prancing about in a vaguely forest-like field. The true ending of the film, ie that which closes the “Director’s” Cut and Final Cut, ends with Deckard finding a calling card from Gaff. At earlier points in the film, Gaff is seen to fold paper into symbolic forms that most interpreters of the film regard as insights into what Gaff thinks of a given subject. But as Rachael leaves with Deckard to destinations unknown, one of her heels knocks a piece of origami partway across the floor. Deckard notices this, and picks it up. Holding it up in front of his own face, and the camera, we see that it is an origami of a unicorn. Hence, Gaff, who would have access to files detailing things about Replicants of all stripes, knows what Deckard has dreams or daydreams about. Nodding in acknowledgement of what this, combined with Gaff’s earlier declaration (“it’s too bad she won’t live… but then again, who does?”), Deckard goes into the elevator with Rachael, and the doors close into a black screen upon which the credits begin to roll. Sublime does not even begin to describe that ending.
In fact, this is exactly what I am talking about when I say that Blade Runner is far more succesful at portraying the reality of being autistic both in the time the film depicts and when it was made. Even the shock of being told that you are adopted some time after your eighteenth birthday does not come close. Being told that you were abused without mercy by parental units, teachers, peers, and authority figures because of a difference in the structure of your brain that you can help no more than the colour of your hair, eyes, or skin is like being told that the bad man hurt you because something is wrong with him. Your first point on the agenda is to figure out how you look at the world, and yourself to a degree, again. The second point is “where do we go from here?”. And Blade Runner‘s accuracy in the second point really hits hard. The film stops dead with Deckard getting in the elevator. In the real world that grows more and more like Blade Runner by the day, the film seems to stop dead because there literally is nowhere to go.
In spite of severe panic and confusion by those attempting to market it, failure at the box office (in a year that was flooded to the gills with science fiction films of all grains), and a rough trot in the editing room, Blade Runner remains one of the most significant films of the twentieth century. Not only does it ask what it means to be Human, it asks what the point of being better than Human is when you have no community, no recognition of your Humanity, and no acknowledgement of your rights. To say that this is a peculiar question which more stories and films posing as science fiction would do well to ask is an understatement.
Oh yeah, before I forget. So how does the film compare to the novella that serves as its source material? Well, bearing in mind that I last read the novella a bit of a while ago now, my first reaction to being told that Philip K. Dick dabbled a lot in drugs during much of his life after my first reading was along the lines of “you… don’t… say”. The novella does so much twisting and turning that it is difficult to believe that Dick was not trying to see how much of it he could do without disappearing up his own arse, basically. Deleted from the film are references to what actually caused the environmental disaster seen in aftermath throughout the film. Also gone are religious-cult-esque overtones that partly help to explain why a world in such a terrible state would have an industry that uses synthetic lifeforms to serve the needs of customers. There are even scenes in the novella involving Deckard being taken to a phony police station in which Replicants attempt to… shall we say, mess with him. Oh, and scenes in which Roy Batty and the whole story ends? Completely different in novella form. In the former case, a long way for the worse in my opinion. In the latter case, well, it is pretty interesting from a storytelling point of view, but the abrupt cut-off of the end we see in the film is preferable to a failed attempt to replicate that little story’s weirdness. My advice is to watch the film and read the novella, in a nutshell.
I own the Blu-ray Disc boxed set of Blade Runner, complete with little “collectable” items like a Matchbox model of the Spinner, a plastic mould of the unicorn origami, and an illusion box based on the shot in which Deckard draws his gun as he returns to his little apartment for the final time. This boxed set is probably now impossible to obtain, but if you can find the five-disc set around which it is based, grab that with both hands. Not only does it give you all four “official” versions of the film (theatrical, “Director’s”, Final, and even Workprint Cut), it also contains Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, a 210+-minute documentary about all the trials and tribulations that were involved in making the film. In fact, I will be really upfront about it: I ordered this set on Blu-ray Disc before I even owned a Blu-ray playback device, leave alone a television capable of syncing to a HD signal. Oh, the difference…
Just get out there and see the film, preferably in HD with lossless audio. You will thank me for this advice later.