I recently joined a LinkedIn group called “World Cinema Critics” to be part of a community engaged in serious film discussions. Lately we’ve had a comment thread going on the subject of Blade Runner, a movie I hadn’t seen since its theatrical release back in 1982.
Last Friday I finally made time to watch it again, partly inspired by the early-June release of director Ridley Scott’s latest film, Prometheus, but more immediately prompted by the World Cinema Critics discussion.
In that conversation, Blade Runner has gotten mixed reviews – praise for its visionary sets but lukewarm regard for its story. This surprised me. Although I certainly remember Blade Runner for its dark, atmospheric design, the one thing that has actually stayed with me most all these years is the story itself . . . particularly one key scene.
If you’re not familiar with Blade Runner, it is about a cop (or, Blade Runner) who hunts down and “retires” escaped “replicants” in the gritty, crowded city of Los Angeles in the year 2019. Humanlike creatures who have been bioengineered for use as slave labor off-world, replicants are designed to have limited emotional capacity. They must be strictly controlled to minimize danger to humanity, and they can be distinguished from humans only by evaluators trained to measure their empathic response through biometric data collected during interrogation sessions.
Former cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the most talented Blade Runner ever, has been called out of retirement to track down and kill those four escaped replicants. Complicating matters, though, is his discovery that Rachael (Sean Young) – the assistant/protégé of Tyrell, the man whose company makes the replicants – is actually an experimental replicant herself.
What I recalled so vividly from watching Blade Runner in the theater was Rachael’s attempt to prove to Deckard (and herself) that she is human by showing him a childhood photo of herself with her mother. Deckard counters with a recitation of Rachael’s most indelible childhood memories – demonstrating to her horror that her sense of “self” is nothing more than implants of memories originally belonging Tyrell’s niece.
This scene, in which Rachael realizes she’s a replicant, is far shorter than I remembered – ironic, considering its focus on unreliable memories! Maybe that particular moment assumed such significance in my recollection because the idea itself was so powerful.
Who are we, after all, without our memories?
A few years ago I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the second time. In my first reading (which coincidentally occurred at about the same time Blade Runner was in theaters), I was far more interested in the book’s father-son motorcycle trip than the philosophical musings interspersed with the plot. I remember impatiently skimming those boring sections to get back to the motorcycle story. However, in my second time through the book, I was amused to realize that I kept skipping over the motorcycle trip to return to the far more interesting philosophical discussion of “quality” instead.
Similarly, Blade Runner is not the same film for me thirty years later. But it holds up remarkably well.
Last Friday night, I noticed aspects of the film’s production design that didn’t even register the first time I saw it in the theater. In particular, I was struck by the way its deliberate anachronisms speak to each other to form a surprisingly coherent overall visual experience.
The buildings’ interiors and exteriors are either Art Nouveau or Art Deco, styles that flourished from about 1890 through the 1930s. Daryl Hannah’s replicant character, Pris, wears leg warmers, a look briefly fashionable during the 1980s, which may have made her a more attractive as a “pleasure model” for a 1980s audience. The clothing and makeup of other characters (especially Rachael and Detective Gaff) have a distinctly 1940s look that, joined together with design elements like Venetian blinds and low-key lighting, creates a “film noir” feel.
A quick check confirms that Blade Runner won an Academy Award for art direction – an honor well deserved!
In the end, though, it’s the visceral response of my 30-years-younger self to the STORY that I keep circling back to. What makes Blade Runner a classic, for me, is its central theme of identity and what it means to be human. While my 2012 self has to smile at Blade Runner’s 1982 vision of Los Angeles in 2019, this film also makes me think quite seriously about Bill Joy’s 2000 Wired Magazine essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” and Ray Kurzweil’s speculations about the coming “technological singularity.”
Someday humanity may need to confront difficult questions about what it means to be human, who “counts” as human, and what inalienable “rights” belong to the machines we create. Blade Runner presciently points the way toward that discussion.
At the same time, Blade Runner strikes far closer to home in exploring another human mystery that remains satisfyingly unfathomable: the union of one man and one woman.