In 1982, Ridley Scott released the greatest movie ever made. That’s a fact based on years of intensive personal scientific study conducted by a team of highly accredited cinema experts made up of myself. Panned on released, it has since become recognized as a major influence and ahead of its time, with insane attention to detail, award winning, breathtaking production design and a brain twisting story that still has fans debating decades after its debut. I’ve gone on record many times extolling my clinically obsessive admiration for the film, but I’ve been hiding a secret. As much as I say this film is perfect, there is one problem I have, and it’s a big one. Let’s discuss.
First, it’s proper to give some background (and you can read more about this film in our posts here, here, and here). Blade Runner is adapted from a 1968 Phillip K. Dick book called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The screenplay is written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, who greatly modified the original novel. The story takes place in a futuristic, dystopian 2019 and follows an ex-cop named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who gets harangued into coming back to duty when a group of “Replicants” have come to Los Angeles from an Off-World colony. Replicants are humanoid androids who resemble people almost exactly. In fact they are so hard to spot, it requires a complicated emotional-response machine called a Voight-Kampff Test to catch them. Tests are administered by Blade Runners, cops on Earth with special training to identify Replicants, all of whom are required by law to live off world.
Deckard is tasked with finding and ‘retiring’ (Cuddly talk for killing) four Replicants that escaped their Off-World colonies and snuck aboard transports back to Los Angeles. They include Leon (Bryon James), a front-line soldier with limited intelligence but intense loyalty and superhuman strength; Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), a member of a replicant murder squad, cunning and made with superhuman strength (that’s gonna come up a lot); Priss, another female with intelligence and superhuman strength but is a basic pleasure model because men in off-world colonies get lonely, too; and lastly, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the highest intelligent member of the group, designed with super strength, he is a combat model with exceptional speed and skill, though also very emotional, making him the most dangerous as well. Their problem is, like all living things, they have a lifespan. For them though, it’s only four years, a condition of the manufacturing process that has yet to be solved.
The plot sees Deckard begin his investigation by visiting the creator of the Replicant program, a man named Tyrell (Joe Turkel). At his lavish offices, Deckard is met by a lithe, attractive woman named Rachel (Sean Young). Tyrell is curious about the Voight-Kampff Test, the machine that Deckard will invariably use to try and identify these latest replicant models. Tyrell requests that Deckard administer the test on Rachel first, as he wants to see a negative before a positive. Deckard obliges and after a lengthy session, finishes and speaks to Tyrell privately. Rachel is a Replicant, but the difference is, she doesn’t know it. Tyrell’s newest iteration is a model that not only has human emotions, it has memories, a first in the Replicant line. He believes this small feature will allow the often emotionally troubled Replicants to better handle their growth and accept their mortality more properly as they will be convinced they’ve led a full life.
The story advances and a short time later, Deckard returns to his high-rise apartment on the 97th floor in the rainy, dreary evening. Rachel is in the elevator waiting. When he sees her, he is clearly shaken and tries to ignore her, telling her to go back to Tryell. He slams the door in her face as she tells him that Tyrell won’t see her. A moment passes and he opens the door again and silently invites her in. She in convinced that he thinks she is a Replicant, as he uncomfortably paces about the room. She offers him some photographs of her as a childhood but he refuses to look, instead, sitting in a lounge chair and recounting memories of her own childhood that only she would know, coldly telling her that what she has are memory implants of Tryell’s niece. A tear swells and rolls down her cheek and Deckard, recognizing his apathy, apologizes, telling her it was just a joke. He attempts to appease her with a drink, but she leaves him alone to think about what’s he said.
Later on, feeling regret for his actions, he goes to Taffey’s Snake Pit Bar, following a lead about one of the escaped Replicants and calls Rachel on a vid-phone and invites her out, but she denies the request and hangs up on him. He’s pretty sure he deserves it and goes about tracking down Zhora, who is working as an exotic dancer at Taffey’s. That leads to a confrontation and foot chase through the busy, rainswept, neon-lit congested streets and a dramatic moment in a department store display window with Zhora’s eventual fate settled with gunfire. And this leads to Leon who corners Deckard in a parking lot. The hopelessly outmatched Deckard is putty in the larger, stronger Replicant, and just as Leon is ready to end the cop’s life, he is shot in the head by Rachel, who did come downtown to see Deckard, and followed him after the Zhora incident, finding the policeman’s gun after Leon knocked it away.
When it’s over, he brings her back to his apartment where they stand in the shadows. He pours himself a drink and calmly talks to her about the “shakes” they are feeling, referring to the adrenaline rush the deadly situation gave them. He explains it’s part of the business, but she corrects him by saying that she is the business, signaling that she accepts what she is, and that one day, a man like Deckard may come for her, too. She even asks him if she ran away, North, would he come after her, but he says no, though another would. The two share a quite moment in the dark, she plinking on the piano as he, exhausted, slips into a light sleep on the sofa, holding a drink. She lets her hair down and he awakens, drawn to her, something he’s probably felt since he met her. He sits beside at the keyboard and there is chemistry between them. She seems inviting, and he is willing. He moves closer and kisses her neck before trying to kiss her lips. She recoils and suddenly, abruptly, stands up and goes for the door. He follows, slams it shut as she tries to flee, then roughly grabs her shoulders and shoves her hard into the wall behind her. He then leans into her and forcibly kisses her, holding her in place as she struggles lightly before giving in to the embrace. He then commands her to kiss him and to say that she wants him. At last, the two fall into each other in a perceived consensual, passionate kiss and as the screen fades out, a sexual encounter is implied.
The moment has been much discussed and certainly in today’s environment, it would (hopefully) never get filmed. Violence towards women have always been mainstays of Hollywood movies, but in this context, it would (and should) be heavily criticized. When I saw this movie for the first time, it was already out of theaters, but that didn’t lessen the impact. This film in all of its iterations, is a masterpiece but this one short segment has always felt uncomfortable, oddly out of place, and curious. For years, I dismissed it as just a director’s choice and squirmed my way through it until it was over and then enjoyed the rest. But recently, having watched it again for my annual traditional viewing, I challenged myself to sit through it with more concerning eyes, to examine it and try to identify what bothered me most about it.
I won’t deny that it isn’t beautifully shot. Like the film entire, it is a gloriously photographed sequence that captures the appropriate tone. Beginning on the piano bench, the two are bathed in sensual darkness, their faces blending into the space around them with stunning effectiveness. It shifts dramatically as she turns and runs, with the entrance hall a shaft of black splintered by the segmented street lights pouring in through venetian blinds. The beams of white light separate the room and their faces like bars and it’s remarkably disjointed, giving the whole moment a jarring, disquieting feel.
When he slams his fist into the door, we can recognize that Deckard is a man who gets what he wants. He is a cop with a dangerous job, and we’ve seen just how deadly in the scene just before. He deals in violence and violence is how he accomplishes his duties, with death being the very punishment he is required to provide. He also knows she is a Replicant, and there may be a deep seeded prejudice within him that triggers his outburst. But he is also sexually attracted to her, which could mean two things. One, he is used to pleasure model Replicants but not ones who say no, or two, this is entirely new to him and he is fighting a passion he is sure is wrong. I hesitate to use the word rape, but in no uncertain terms, this is what happens. The girl makes clear she is not ready for a sexual encounter. What we know of her is that she is a Replicant and probably, has never had sex, though she does have the memories of Tyrell’s niece who may have. There is some speculation that Tyrell himself was using her for sex, but that is not clear. Either way, she flees and in any language, that is no. Deckard, who is painted as the film’s hero remember, gives chase, stops her, pushes her, and forces her to kiss him and then do more.
What is he doing? Perhaps he is purposefully showing her what passion is, how humans physically communicate when they want sex, though that doesn’t seems likely. Deckard is reactionary. He is trained to act. He is intelligent and resourceful, but he is much more action-oriented. But what’s more interesting in this is what director Scott is doing. Blade Runner is hailed as a Neo film noir, and indeed the noir films of long ago are often rife with misogyny and downplaying women. But is that the message? The lighting, the music, and the tone beforehand all indicate that this is a romantic moment and so it begs the question: What is the viewer supposed to be thinking? Deckard has been an honest man to this point, hard-boiled to be sure, but honest. He has shown genuine concern for her and is grateful for her saving his life. This one moment conflicts with everything we know about him and forces us to reconsider our feelings. Do we condone his abuse? Do we makes excuses (like I did for decades)? Or do we hold the moment accountable as the turning point, that indeed, Deckard is not the good guy in this film. Or at least the guy we want him to be.
I love this film and will continue to admire it for its groundbreaking themes, production and direction. But I will also address this scene more carefully and continue to try and better understand what it implies and what I as the observer should take away.
What do you think? Women readers, please share your thoughts and let me know how this moments resonants with you. Thanks for reading.