The original Blade Runner film changed moviemaking and culture forever.
Philip K. Dick was one of the world’s most “unacknowledged science fiction writers of our time,” Brian Aldiss says in the documentary On the Edge of ‘Blade Runner.’ Dick wrote against the grain of modern science fiction. In a time of space-trekking heroes conquering unknown worlds and saving alien damsels in distress, Dick was writing about the human condition and experiences of the mind.
One of Dick’s essential works was a novel titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In 1982 screenwriter Hampton Fancher adapted the novel into a motion picture screenplay: Blade Runner. Ridley Scott helmed the sci-fi film masterpiece as director, and the stunning imagery and haunting soundtrack meshed seamlessly with the novelist’s exploration of what it means to be human.
Though distinct from the novel, the movie still reflects the story’s main points. It deals with a dystopian Los Angeles in 2019, when genetically engineered replicants (a term coined for the movie, because android was overused at the time) are manufactured by the powerful Tyrell Corporation to work as skilled labor/slaves for the off-world colonies. The beings were sold and owned by military organizations as well as private citizens who lived on other planets. A small number of these artificial humans escape and return to Earth and are hunted down and “retired” by a special police operative known as a Blade Runner.
The main players in the original Blade Runner film are Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), an embittered ex–Blade Runner; Zhora, an exotic snake dancer who’s trained for an off-world kick-murder squad; Pris, a basic pleasure model used in military clubs in the outer colonies; Leon, an ammunition loader on intergalactic runs who could lift 400-pound atomic loads all day and night; Roy Batty (Rutger Haur), their leader who’s built for optimum self-sufficiency. Other than Deckard and the main replicants, there is Captain Bryant, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (the creator of the replicants), Rachel (Sean Young) who is Tyrell’s niece, and Gaff who is an up-and-coming Blade Runner sent along with Deckard for part of the investigation.
If we go the Descartes route with “I think; therefore, I am,” something Pris actually says in the film, we can assume the replicants are indeed human. They can conjure thoughts and communicate ideas. They can feel pain and express emotions.
However, even though replicants are genetically engineered humans, they’re still considered subhuman or mechanical tools to be utilized and discarded. Deckard even states, “Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.”
If you’ve never watched the original Blade Runner film, spoilers ahead!
Ironically enough, replicants display more emotional diversity than most of the human characters do. Even the human protagonist is rather stoic, while the replicants display vivid tones of fear, anger, sadness and even humor.
The movie thrusts into the forefront the moral implications of genetic engineering and the hubris that shadows it. These ideas run through the relationships in the film. Remember the following, for example: Leon and Roy’s interaction when searching for a way into the Tyrell Corporation. Roy and Pris’s strange, almost brother-sister/lovers type of relationship. Roy’s interaction with his creator, Eldon Tyrell, as he meets his maker and seeks more life. Deckard’s abrasive relationship with his superior Captain Bryant, his confusing romantic relationship with Tyrell’s niece Rachel, and his battle with Roy near the end when Deckard sees the lengths to which the replicants will go to live and prove they deserve to.
Throughout the film Deckard starts to realize there is not much difference between him and the synthetic people. He begins to understand his own mortality. He also becomes aware that these artificial people just want to have something real; they want their lives validated. When created, they’re allotted only four years to live. This heightens their desire to experience life as much as possible. The dark side is that they crave more life and will do anything to get it.
Along with allowing audiences to explore complex concepts, the movie stunned viewers with its visual effects. Blade Runner was, in fact, one of the last science fiction films with no CGI. The amazing team of artists created vehicles, models, matte paintings and elaborate physical sets, and the effects have held up under scrutiny all these years. Jordan Cronenweth, Blade Runner’s director of photography, used lighting and framing in a way science fiction filmmakers have tried to mimic for years. In an interview, Cronenweth remarked, “Blade Runner is a piece that calls for extremes. It’s naturally a wonderful vehicle for this kind of lighting. It’s theatrical, but it will be very real in the film. In this film, I think you’ll just accept it. It transcends theatricality.”
The soundtrack is itself another character, created by Greek composer Vangelis. It is the blood of the film pumping through the scenes, tying the viewers’ emotions into the heart of the story.
When the movie was released, it was neither a box office hit or a critic favorite. In fact, in 1982 on At the Movies, Roger Ebert said, “It’s a great movie to look at but a hard one to care about,” and Gene Siskel said, “The story goes no place.”
Though the initial reception was underwhelming, with the release of the film on VHS (1983) and later LaserDisc (1987), the movie began to gather an underground following of cult status. Today it’s one of the most beloved science fiction films of all time.
This year Blade Runner 2049 will open to much anticipation. What questions will it answer, and what new ones will it pose?
And what about our future? We may not have cars that can hover, but we’ve found our way into the era of creating synthetic life. Scientists in labs could soon grow artificial human life from scratch. A mammal embryo has already been created from only stem cells.
These breakthroughs revive the question: What does it mean to be human?