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With the up-coming and very long-awaited sequel releasing in theaters this October, we thought it’d be a good time to get familiar again with the first film, one that many consider one of the most influential movies ever made. After it’s theatrical run, it underwent a few home video iterations with the definitive Blade Runner: The Final Cut available in 2007. Here are two views of that release.
Man’s creations will eventually rebel against their creators. Los Angeles, 2019. The City of Angels is a place that has seen many of the world’s greatest technological advances. One of these advances is the creation of “Replicants,” androids who look and feel like everyday humans. Proven to be dangerous after an uprising, the remaining replicants are banished outside of Earth and relegated to slave labor.
A few escape, and land back on Earth in search of their creator, whom they believe can help extend their life expectancy. They need to be “retired,” no ifs, ands, or buts. Taken from the shadows is Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an individual who specifically tracks and eliminates replicate threats. Upon the course of his investigation/manhunt, he gets romantically involved with an experimental model replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), who believes herself to be human. Deckard’s involvement with Rachael forces him to confront his humanity, as well as those of whom he is hunting.
Almost 35 years after its release (as of this writing), it’s impossible to talk about Blade Runner without acknowledging the impact it has had on the science fiction genre, mainly on the technical side. Almost 35 years later, it’s still one of the better-looking science fictions movies in history.
The dystopian future is a lynchpin of many a feature in the genre, but few, if any, have topped the fully realized vision that director Ridley Scott employs here. Los Angeles circa 2019 world feels authentic and lived-in, and draws one into the film immediately, starting with the first interrogation utilizing the Voight-Kampff machine. Production is absolutely stellar, from the way Scott sets up shots, to the impressive score and sound design. Clearly a sci-fi, however, it doubles as a film-noir (earlier versions feature Deckard narration, thankfully removed) in its use of lighting and plot elements.
Even as a visual tour-de-force, Scott’s Blade Runner is a slow moving film, mainly for the first half. Not until the second half do the themes start coalescing and things become more balanced with action and narrative. Scott tackles issues of oppression and corporate control, but being mainly concerned with what makes someone human. With the protagonist narration removed, Ridley leaves this question open to interpretation for the viewer.
With all of that said, Blade Runner doesn’t resonate like envisioned, even after two viewings. I look to Scott’s characters as to a reason why, and mainly, his protagonist. Rick Deckard, even as more of his backstory is hinted at, is rather bland and nowhere near as compelling as he should be. As such, Harrison Ford ends up sort of being forgettable. Compare his character to that of Peter Weller‘s in RoboCop (a movie that has similarities to Blade Runner but better pacing and memorable central characters to carry out its themes through), and Deckard feels … there. No real reason to get behind him and care about his journey. Why is he a blade runner? Why is he pulled out of retirement to hunt these replicants down, as opposed to someone else?
The replicants actually steal the show, in particular Rutger Hauer as the central leader Roy Batty of the escaped crew inhabiting Earth. Looking the part of an unstoppable killing machine, Hauer and Scott peel back the onion to show that there’s more to his character than that, and ends up being arguably the best character of the entire movie. Another argument can be made for Rachael, played by Sean Young who gives the character multiple layers as well. Rounding out the replicants are Joanna Cassidy, Daryl Hannah, and Brion James–each getting adequate screen time to further sell this created world–but amounting to little in actual people generating feelings from the audience.
More impressive from the production and vision aspect than a storytelling and character one, Blade Runner is a little disappointing from the latter front. But is it still quite the sci-fi-experience in totality? Absolutely, and for that alone, it’s a mandatory watch for anyone.
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a cop. Actually an ex-cop, but that’s about to change, even if he doesn’t want back in. Something big has come up and his captain needs him, reminding him that, “if you’re not cop, you’re little people.” Take from that what you will. He’s told that there are six ‘Replicants’ (humanoid androids) who have illegally come back to earth after being assigned to off-world colonies. Four are still alive. These androids are considered dangerous, but are virtually undetectable. Deckard’s job is to hunt them down and, in police terms, ‘retire’ them. This is what he does best. They call him ‘Blade Runner’.
Who are the Replicants? “More Human Than Human” that’s who. This is the definition given by Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the corporate head who created the androids. The one’s being hunted by Deckard are Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) the leader, an intelligently curious figure with perfect physique and incredible strength; Leon (Brion James) a loyal soldier/worker with less intelligence; Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) a highly-skilled assassin, and Priss (Daryl Hannah) a pleasure model for human soldiers and workers. Batty has brought them here for one purpose: find their maker and get more life. It’s what we all want.
Loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the story follows Deckard as he methodically tracks down each of the Replicants who live up to Tyrell’s description, making their fate not just identifiable with our own, but hard to watch. We’ve written about the film many times: here and here and here. For this piece, I’d like to examine perhaps the most famous moment in the story, and one that might have more behind it than expected.
Rick Deckard has been chasing Roy Batty for most of the film. We’ve come a long way, too, seeing the similarities in the two men, slowly questioning who is the good guy and who is the bad, often asking ourselves, “What about them is so different?” Indeed, sympathies are constantly at odds for the viewer. The warriors don’t actually meet until the final moments, in an abandoned, rain-soaked building that sees the two men square off in dark, empty hallways and boarded-up rooms, Deckard relentlessly coming after the now near-crazed Batty whose body is shutting down. But Batty is clever and Batty is strong. He seems to toy with the weaker man, but after a short battle, they find themselves in reverse positions; the chase has switched with Deckard running from Batty. In desperation, Deckard scrambles up to the roof and then makes a dramatic leap across a wide gap between two buildings, but lands short, clinging to a protruding metal beam as the rain wets his slipping fingers. Batty follows, making the jump easily then looms above his target as Deckard begins to lose his grip.
“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?” Batty speaks to him. “That’s what it is to be a slave.”
There’s a slight nod in Batty’s head before he speaks this. It’s subtle but distinct and is perhaps the most significant part of the entire scene and one I suspect was not unintentional. There is recognition in Batty’s eyes, a change that sweeps over him and changes him wholly. Instead of letting the hunter fall to his certain death, he saves him from the ledge and tosses Deckard onto the roof beside him. He then squats and delivers one of the most moving soliloquies in cinema history:
As powerful as Hauer is in the moment, be sure to pay attention to Harrison Ford. He plays this exactly right, not speaking, only watching, his face revealing what the audience is also feeling. And that beautiful slow motion closing of Deckard’s eyes. What does that tell us? There is a purpose in this image, that Deckard also recognizes something in his foe, a humanity that even he has perhaps allowed to slip away in his own life. The ambiguity of Deckard’s own existence is certainly at play. Who is he? What is he made of? How close to Batty is he really? And most importantly, are his tears soon to fall in rain.
Roy Batty has been portrayed throughout the movie as dangerous and brutal, struggling with questions of identity. Rutger, feeling that this moment needed a bit more than the script allowed, reworked the part himself, and director Ridley Scott agreed. It is has been written that after his filming of the scene, the film crew applauded and some were said to have wept. His final words have become some of the most often quoted in science fiction.
The ending is no surprise, of course. The hero wins. Or does he? And is he the hero? There is something very revealing about Batty in his last moments. He is fully aware that he has reached the termination date of his body, an internal program created by the Tyrell Corporation that keeps Replicants alive for only four years. This is something unique, right?, having precise knowledge of when you will die. And knowing he is close to his own demise, he has a kind of epiphany, a revelation about life and existence. With his last act, he has two desires: have Deckard realize that he is not who he thinks he is, and to not die alone. But let’s talk a bit about Deckard first.
The question of whether Deckard is a Replicant or not is one that rages on, and with this 2007 edition, the speculation runs at an all time high with a number of subtle hints to his real status, most notably the insertion of a very brief dream sequence of a running unicorn, which echoes an origami unicorn made by another character named Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who may or may not know who Deckard is. Throughout the film we are convinced by clever uses of film conventions, that Deckard is the good guy, but that image begins to shatter if we look more deeply, and that is what Batty forces us to think about in the last run through the abandoned building. He taunts Deckard in what is filmed like a maniacal madman’s rant, in those same techniques that define good versus evil. But listen to what he says after the Blade Runner shoots at him:
“Not very sporting to fire on an unarmed opponent. I thought you were supposed to be good. Aren’t you the ‘good’ man? C’mon, Deckard. Show me what you’re made of.”
He’s asking Deckard but also us. What is a good man? Does a ‘good’ man shoot a woman in the back? Deckard did when hunting Zhora. Does a good man kill a person who is simply trying to understand who they are? Deckard does. In fact, Deckard’s cold indifference to the Replicants betrays a sort of conditioning in him, perhaps, given the possibility of who he might be, even an implanted memory or character trait. Does Batty know this? And if he does, is he reaching out to his fellow Replicant?
Back on the roof, the men are sitting across from each with Batty clutching a white dove he snatched from the other rooftop. The dove, a symbol of ascension upon his death, rests in his fingers as Batty accepts he is powerless to fight the end. Like us all, as we age, he is flooded by memories of his past, recollections of the life he lived, and he recalls the wonders he experienced and worries about the legacy he leaves behind, especially that it will be forgotten once he’s gone. In these precious few moments before that end, he seeks kinship with Deckard, perhaps to have his dignity be what is last remembered of him and show the Blade Runner how a ‘real man’ dies. More Human Than Human.
Rutger Hauer is an extremely talented actor who never quite reached A-list status. He’d made his American film debut a year earlier opposite Sylvester Stallone in the cop drama Nighthawks and would gain further popularity in the Matthew Broderick fantasy film, Ladyhawke. He makes an imposing impression as Roy Batty and his nuanced performance is often lauded as his best. What’s so special about Blade Runner and especially this moment, is how it avoids the expected. The classic battle between good and evil we have come to see in every film of its kind never truly materializes the way we are so sure it will. The epic standoff primed by the chase is instead a morality tale and has a much more powerful effect. This would never happen in today’s action-oriented films, overly saturated with choreographed fight sequences and slow-motion explosions. This paradigm shift is embraced by both actors in the moment and as such, is reason why it remains so revered by critics and fans alike.