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In 1982, a moody, dark, sci-fi film made its way to theaters and was quickly panned by critics and audiences as being, well, too moody and dark. Also, terrible narration. Fortunately, its visionary director, Ridley Scott, got tinkering with the film a few years later, and then again a fews years after that, and then one more time a couple of decades after it was released and all of sudden (meaning over years), the film became considered one of the most influential and groundbreaking movies in cinema history.
For the sake of full disclosure, Blade Runner is the film I put on the top when asked about my favorite movies of all time. I’ve been vocal about that since I made that choice in the mid-1980s and have remained steadfast in the decision ever since, making it clear on this site more than a few times before. It’s an experience like no other, and for those that have yet to be moved by its voodoo magic, I can only assume it’s just a matter of time. Just be warned, once it takes hold, your life will change. Results may vary.
To summarize, the plot centers on a special kind of cop in 2019 Los Angeles, a “Blade Runner,” whose job it is to hunt down and execute (called “retiring”) androids living illegally on the planet. These replicants, who are designed to be ‘more human than human’ are basically slaves living off-world in colonies as soldiers, workers, and pleasures models. Yet as superiorly-engineered as they are, they are also programed with a four-year lifespan, which cannot be altered. It’s part of their DNA, as it were. Sentient, curious, and self-preserving, they naturally want to stay alive and a few of them have managed to make their way back to Earth and are on a mission to find their maker and get more life. Not if Deckard has anything to do with.
Obviously, there is a lot of religious and philosophical context to the story, adapted from the Philip K. Dick book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? While these elements are subcutaneous in the film’s approach, it is the startling visual effects and mind-boggling production design that has come to define the film most, with a dark, film-noir feel and a pair of outstanding performances from the movie’s leads Harrison Ford as Deckard and Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty. You’ll notice I didn’t label these men as protagonist and antagonist since it could be argued that both men are parts of each. I discuss more of that here.
With the sequel coming, and Ford signing on to reprise his role along with Ryan Gosling and Jared Leto in as yet unnamed parts, there are a ton of questions about what to expect. The good news is Hampton Fancher, who wrote the screenplay for the original, has also penned this sequel with Ridley Scott, who will not be directing. That falls to Denis Villeneuve, who has a promising list of credentials, including last year’s stellar Sicario. Naturally, with Ford aboard, though to what lengths is entirely speculative, the plot will be a story set in the years after the original and this is where I get twitchy. Here’s why:
For those who haven’t seen the film, let me first say, Huh? Sorry. I mean, there will be spoilers so be warned, but I’ll try not to divulge too many details. Essentially, a running theme throughout the story, if you’re paying attention, is to question the state of Rick Deckard. Is he man or machine? Person or Replicant? It’s a debate long raging and with Scott’s Blade Runner: The Final Cut version released in 2007, which is by far the most superior of the varying iterations, there are some tantalizing clues, one of which is the brief unicorn dream sequence which echoes an origami unicorn seen late in the story, to which Deckard seems to make a connection when he sees the folded paper, suggesting his memories are planted. The movie ends with no definitive answer as a wonderfully frustrating close of the elevator doors has Deckard and actual replicant Rachel (Sean Young) attempting to escape. It’s a powerful, triumphant ending that leaves the viewer in a permanent state of question and honestly, it’s a question I don’t want answered. To learn a truth one way or the other will entirely strip away the impact of the film. To concretely know that Rick Deckard is human or replicant is to end one of the greatest cliffhangers in film history and rid us fans of one movie’s greatest debates.
All iterations of the film’s releases end with Rick and Rachel making a run for it. In the theatrical version, they are riding off in the only daytime non-cityscape scene in the film and it is the most uplifting of the differing versions (all of which omit this sequence), but none satisfactorily answer whether the couple have a chance to make a life together, whether he is human or not, and how long she’ll live. The ending, which again is best presented in the The Final Cut version, leaves doubt and it’s uncertainty is ironically enough, what makes it the most human. I don’t want to know what happened to Rachel and Deckard. That’s the whole point of the original film’s ending (no matter which one you watch). It’s the very point of being a person in a relationship, and it’s that mystery, that sense of danger and hope that gives that relationship such compelling value. “Do you trust me?” Deckard asks her as their desperate run begins. She does, and by extension, so do we. Think back to last year’s Star Wars The Force Awakens, a very good film that managed to pull the franchise back onto the right track. But, wasn’t it just a little disconcerting to see Han Solo and Princess Leia again? I fear that the fate of Rachel (given that Young will not be joining the cast) will be a throw away line and that’ll be the end of it.
The term Off-World is pretty clear, but it refers to the colonies on planets where the replicants live and work, but also where humans can go, promised a new life in a golden land of opportunity and adventure. That most assuredly includes owning a replicant or two. We only know of these colonies because we learn that the replicants escaped from their off-world assignments, but also from a giant brilliantly-lit blimp-like advertising drone that hovers over the city bellowing the service, ironically to the downtrodden below who probably can’t afford it. The thing is though, we never see a colony, only imagine what it is like, and here again is why it works. It’s further compounded by Batty’s eloquent soliloquy about his own adventures off-world, straight up telling us his eyes have seen things ours never will. Nor do I want to. And nor should you. The power of the the unseen world is what gives these replicants such mystery. Where have they been? What have they seen? To take us there is to define something we have shaped in our own minds and that robs us forever of the power of imagination.
Okay, so with that all said, I’m still hopeful. Fancher is a great writer and he knows this universe and is mostly responsible for why the film has such narrative strength. Ford himself has called the sequel the best script he has ever read. We can only hope that Fancher and the rest of the team respects what the original is all about and weave a new story that maintains the ambiguity of the first film, though I suspect all of the above concerns will be legitimate. Time will tell. And because of that, there is the possibility that in the new film, the great mysteries of Blade Runner will be revealed, and like that, all these memories will be lost. Like tears in rain.