Horrific visions of the future have become a common sight in cinemas recently, with franchises such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner proving stratospherically popular with audiences and accountants alike. With that in mind, it seemed appropriate to look back on the film which many still uphold as the definitive dystopian film , Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s indelible 1982 masterpiece.
“Have you ever killed a human by mistake?”. A startling suggestion to you and I, but it is a common enquiry for someone in Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) line of work. He’s a licensed Blade Runner Unit, employed the authority to hunt and “retire” illegal replicants, humanoid robots grown for warfare, labour, and cheap pleasure. These replicants look like us and talk like us, but Deckard has never considered if they can feel like us too. Maybe that’s why his skills are in such high demand.
Inspired by science fiction wunderkind Philip K. Dick’s thoughtful novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, Blade Runner is a visual epic of godless magnificence , the rare film which uses bold cinematic style to pose powerful questions about the value of life, the cost of time, and what it means to declare yourself human.
But just who is human in Blade Runner? Roy Batty, the rogue automaton who Deckard is ordered to put down, is played by the fearsome Rutger Hauer with an almost insatiable lust for life. Compare this to Harrison Ford’s mordant portrayal of Deckard, who operates with such robotic efficiency that you wonder whether his inner workings are organic, or as cold and mechanised as a droid on the assembly line.
This sodden yarn begins in the unrelentingly drizzly Los Angeles of 2019. Deckard is dragged back into office of his old boss, a gleefully sleazy inspector played by the ever-reliable Emmet Walsh. A splinter group of replicants have found their way to earth from one of the off-world colonies, and the last Blade Runner the inspector assigned to the case is on life support. The terms, the Inspector tells Deckard, are non-negotiable. So Deckard begrudgingly leaves to question Mr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the slimy CEO of the company that conceived the replicants. Tyrell swiftly turns the investigation into a showcase for his latest creation, Rachel (Sean Young), a facsimile femme fatale so convincing that even Deckard’s specialist equipment can barely distinguish between intelligence human and artificial. Suddenly, he can’t just pretend his targets are unfeeling appliances any more, and the story becomes a ploy to reclaim his lost humanity.
When you imagine the future, it is the vision of Ridley Scott and Futurist Syd Mead you see. Scott’s Los Angeles looks as if the pristine cityscapes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis have been marinated in boiling oil. From the slick pavement to the blackened towers, every architectural detail is draped with shadows, illuminated only by the acid glow of countless corporate billboards. It is a poetically bleak depiction of a species in moral and economic recession, and it lives on inside your mind long after the credit have rolled.
Flying cars, or Spinners as they are known may be a perpetual work in progress, but Blade Runner still foresaw Skype, surveillance, and perhaps most uncannily, the rapid development and subsequent decay of urban America. In 1982, ace production designer David S. Snyder’s hellish world was limited to one street in Universal’s backlot. Now, as remarkably recent pictures from Tokyo have shown us, you can walk around any city in the world and see something eerily similar.
But what becomes increasingly remarkable to me each time I revisit Blade Runner is how accurately it prophesied the emotional evolution of humankind. Few films has so acutely recognised the universal sense of loneliness which brews in the most populous of places, and there many long scenes where the camera languidly tracks around Deckard’s colossal apartment, as he drinks bourbon and tries not make eye contact with the small black and white photos which line his mantelpiece. As the gorgeously mournful score by Vangelis hums away, we realise that we all know someone like that, and that someone may very well be ourselves.
Part of what makes Blade Runner such a pleasurable experience is how it observes the traditions of American Film Noir and transposes them into Science-Fiction,which traditionally represents a more hopeful view of the American Way. Not here, of course. Harrison Ford slips into the role of the downtrodden gumshoe with an effortless ease, and with every glance Sean Young seems to be possessed by the sultry spirits of Lauren Bacall and Joan Crawford. But the influence goes much deeper than the set dressing. Any film set in an appalling climate comes packaged with a explanatory title card telling you how and why things got so dire. Blade Runner does not no such thing, the nihilistic suggestion being that nothing could have averted its present. The fall of man, as always, is horribly inevitable.
When Deckard eventually gets around to his job , it is shockingly grim, bloody, and cold. It is by necessity. If replicants only coughed up a few cogs when they were shot, we could assure ourselves that Deckard’s targets were disposable as a faulty hair dryer. Instead, their bloodcurdling screams force us to consider that if these replicants can feel a bullet, can they also feel love, hatred, happiness, rapture? You tell me.
Science Fiction has long been the arena of philosophical ideas, preferring to rouse our minds than open our hearts. Blade Runner has a vastly different goal. It is not content for us to merely ruminate on its ideas, but wants us to feel their possibilities and implications in our souls. Thus, a nightmare gives way to a shimmer of hope. The Hunger Games‘ depiction of a ravaged totalitarian state makes you thankful for a limited lifespan. Blade Runner makes you cherish every passing breath.