Director: Ridley Scott. Producer: Michael Deeley. Screenplay: Hampton Fancher & David Peoples. Based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Starring: Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Rutger Hauer (Roy Batty), Sean Young (Rachael), Edward James Olmos (Gaff), M. Emmet Walsh (Harry Bryant), Daryl Hannah (Pris), William Sanderson (J.F. Sebastian), Leon Kowalsky (Brion James), Joe Turkel (Dr Eldon Tyrell), Joanna Cassidy (Zhora), James Hong (Chew), Morgan Paull (Dave Holden), Hy Pyke (Taffey Lewis). Music: Vangelis. Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth. Editors: Terry Rawlings & Marsha Nakashima. Studio: The Ladd Company, Tandem Productions, Sir Run Run Shaw. Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures, 1982, 116 mins.
Man has made his match… Now it’s his problem
Early in the 21st Century, THE TYRELL CORPORATION advanced robot evolution into the NEXUS phase – a being virtually identical to a human – known as a Replicant. The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-World as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-World colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth – under penalty of death. Special police squads – BLADE RUNNER UNITS – had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant This was not called execution. It was called retirement.
Blade Runner is a near-future science fiction film noir thriller directed by Ridley Scott, adapted by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick.
It is set in post-industrial Los Angeles in the ”near future” of 2019 and stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a burnt-out detective cum bounty hunter – or ”Blade Runner” – forced out of retirement to track down and exterminate – or ”retire” – a group of ”replicants‘ (androids) who have escaped slavery in the Off World Colonies and made their way to Earth where they are passing for human.
The film opens with senior Blade Runner Dave Holden (Morgan Paull) about to administer a psychometric test to Leon Kowolsky (Brion James), a new employee at the Tyrell Corporation; Holden, we later learn, is following a hunch that the replicants might be attempting to infiltrate the company which created them. The test measures physiological responses to a series of hypothetical questions involving cruelty to animals in order to assesses the subject/suspect’s empathy – replicants being presumed to have none. Holden is badly injured when Leon realises he has been unmasked and pulls out a gun.
The film cuts to the neon-lit, rain-drenched ”down-town streets of Los Angeles” where we meet the film’s protagonist and, in the Theatrical Cut, narrator, Rick Deckard:
DECKARD (VO): They don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-cop. Ex-blade runner. Ex-killer
Deckard is all-but arrested by dapper detective Gaff (Edward James Olmos) and taken to a kipple-strewn police station where his former boss, police chief Harry Bryant (a delightfully sleazy M. Emmet Walsh) blackmails him out of retirement in order to complete Holden’s mission:
BRYANT: I need ya, Deck. This is a bad one, the worst yet. I need the old blade runner, I need your magic.
DECKARD: I was quit when I come in here, Bryant, I’m twice as quit now.
BRYANT: Stop right where you are! You know the score, pal. You’re not cop, you’re little people!
DECKARD: No choice, huh?
BRYANT: No choice, pal.
Bryant explains that a group of six replicants, lead by the charismatic Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), have made their way to Earth. Two have already been killed while attempting to enter the Tyrell building, but four, Batty, Leon, Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) remain at large . The replicants are a highly sophisticated new model, the Nexus 6, stronger and more intelligent than their creators – but with a built-in limitation:
BRYANT: The Nexus 6 was designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions. But the makers reckoned that after a few years they might develop their own emotional responses – hate, love, fear, anger, envy. So they built in a fail safe device..
DECKARD: What’s that?
BRYANT: The Nexus 6 has only four years to live.
The replicants are virtually indistinguishable from human beings and it requires the Voight-Kampff test to identify them. Doubts have been raised about the efficacy of the Voight-Kampff test in identifying the Nexus 6 model, and before Deckard begins his mission he is challenged by Eldon Tyrell, their creator and reclusive head of the Tyrell Corporation, to demonstrate the test on his assistant Rachael (Sean Young). Deckard explains that the test measures blush responses, pupil dilation, heart rate and other physiological responses; it normally takes 20-30 questions to identify a replicant – but in this case it takes Deckard over a hundred to determine that Rachael is, unknown to herself, a replicant.
Over the course of the film the distinction between human and replicant becomes increasingly blurred. The replicants are shown to possess feelings for each other: their ice-cool leader, Roy Batty and the ”basic pleasure model” Pris are clearly in love, and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) is working as a performer in a sleazy sex show to support the others. Deckard, on the other hand, is revealed to be both ruthless and cowardly: he shoots the fleeing Zhora in the back and virtually rapes Rachael who has fallen in love with him. He also shoots the unarmed Pris and attempts to shoot Batty in the back. Despite all this Batty spares Deckard’s life during the grueling climax of the film and Deckard, having finally accepted the humanity of the replicants, flees with the now fugitive Rachael to an uncertain future.
There are various edits of the film but I want focus on two in particular: the ”European Theatrical Cut” from 1982 (in which form I originally saw the film) and the preferred ”Final Cut” released in 2007. The former includes a controversial world-weary narration by Deckard intended to clarify the story for audiences less accustomed to science fiction but which tends to hammer home the thematic points a little too heavily (though it does fit the film noir style of the film); and more damagingly it includes a tacked-on ending where Deckard and Rachael fly off into a lush countryside to live happily ever after having discovered that Rachael doesn’t have a four-year lifespan at all. The Final Cut fixes some technical issues and continuity errors but more significantly removes the narration and the happy ending and adds a brief dream sequence which hints that Deckard himself is a replicant. (There are other differences and I’ll come to them later.)
Blade Runner as Future Noir
Although set in the future the film deliberately evokes the style and atmosphere of the classic forties film noir:
The city in Blade Runner, with its rain-slicked Los Angeles streets, faux-forties fashions, private-eye plot and world-weary narration, derives plenty from noir. This is a dark city of mean streets, moral ambiguities and an air of irresolution. Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles exemplifies the failure of the rational city envisioned by urban planners and science fiction creators, and it also recalls, by implication, the air of masculine crisis that undergirded film noir – witness Deckard’s struggle to retain, or regain, his humanity. If the metropolis in noir was a dystopian purgatory, then in Blade Runner, with its flame-belching towers, it has become and almost literal Inferno
—— Scott Bukatman, Blade Runner (BFI Mdern Classics)
Fredric Jameson has written that Raymond Chandler’s novels reflected the American desire to reconnect with each other and that the detective’s role was to act as agent of this reconnection:
[T]he form of Chandler’s books reflects an initial American separation of people from each other, their need to be linked by some external force (in this case the detective) if they are ever to be fitted together as parts of the same picture puzzle. And this separation is projected out onto space itself: no matter how crowded the street in question, the various solitudes never really merge into a collective experience[;] there is always distance between them. Each dingy office is separated from the next; each room in the rooming house from the one next to it; each dwelling from the pavement beyond it. This is why the most characteristic leitmotif of Chandler’s books is the figure standing, looking out of one world, peering vaguely or attentively across into another.
—— Fredric Jameson, ”On Raymond Chandler”
- Dick, Philip K (1968) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
- Fancher, Hampton (1980) Blade Runner: Screenplay
- Off-world: The Blade Runner Wiki
- Sims, Christopher A. (2009) ”The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” in Science Fiction Studies #107 = Volume 36, Part 1 = March 2009