THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 15: BLADE RUNNER

by Dan Suddes

Blade Runner (1982)  Directed By:  Ridley Scott  Written By:  Hampton Francher and David Peoples Based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep By Phillip K Dick  Produced by:  Michael Deeley Starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Darryl Hannah, and Edward James Olmos Oscar Count: 0 (Nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects)

At its release, Blade Runner was regulated to being a visually stunning but emotionally sparse downer that audience who were flocking to E.T. did not tolerate. A quarter of a century later, and the film is considered among the best science fiction films of all time.

Why? Maybe it’s because people finally realized that they could not attack a film’s lack of humanity when the central theme of the work is what humanity is. The replicants (artificial humans) act with more compassion and feeling than the human characters do. They love each other and are capable of affection towards humans. Deckard, in the meantime, barely reacts when he is asked to destroy the replicants and his attempts of love are as seemingly artificial as a robots should be. Watch the scene when he is directing Rachel what to say to express love. It is not for her benefit, but for his own.

The replicants are not even villainous. Like HAL in 2001, they are doing what they are programmed to do – be as human as possible. Every one of them wants to preserve their lives and will fight for it. Roy Baty (Rutger Hauer in his most famous role) is not acting out of greed or malice when he confronts and kills his creator. He simply wants more life. Deckard is the one who is the villain of the piece, blasting away at beings trying to find a new life and who have not been shown harming anyone (at that point in the film). The replicants are doing everything they can to act like normal humans, and Deckard is the one standing in the way of their goal.

But then, SHOULD the replicants be treated in the same way as humans? Ridley Scott, for the purposes of this film, seems to think so. The best science fiction has always been allegorical. It would be simplistic to say that the film is an examination of race relations. But that subtext certainly is buried. At the very least, that subtext demonstrates that Blade Runner is challenging science fiction.  Blade Runner was radical for the way that it refused to name heroes and villains the way a post Star Wars audience demanded.

The film’s set design and aesthetic has been commented on by numerous reviewers. Indeed, the film was revolutionary upon its release for predicting the future and how cities will look. But the film does not do that. The bright, dirty aesthetic was meant to be a reflection of what was currently happening in cities, from urban decay to the bright plastered advertising on every street corner. The emerging cyber punk genre used the same idea when they were critiquing modern society and how numb it has made people. In the Los Angeles ofBlade Runner, it should not be shocking that people are dressed in rags and all wear a blank look of boredom. The replicants seem to belong to the city more than any human should. An artificial wasteland like the Los Angeles of 2019 can only be inhabited by robots who are looking for the illusion of life.

It is a credit to the longevity of the film that such a box office bomb is still being discussed and revered is a tribute to how inventive the film was. Its design alone inspired a new genre of science fiction. But Blade Runneris not just a great film for the foot print it left on popular culture.  It is a great film because it is far smarter than it has any right to be; an action film that asks what makes us human and how even something as precious as consciousness can become a commodity.

The best scene in the film is the retirement scene of Zhora. For many years, this was a source of shame for Ridley Scott, as there was an obvious continuity error in the scene. But it works so well that it amazes me Scott could not see what he had managed to craft. The film works as an action scene in its composition – it is very staccato and intense. But it also manages to explore the themes of human v “replicant” without saying a single word. Despite Zhora’s short life span and the fact she is nothing more than a product does not mean that she will not protect her own life. Ford acts with a sense of duty, but is also very scared and unsure about himself and his role in this conflict. When he finally accomplishes his task and executes Zhora, it is not meant to be a moment of triumph, but one of sadness.  Both Deckard and the replicants do not want the roles that have been seemingly assigned to them by fate. This scene, like some sort of modern dance number, explicates exactly what those roles are and how cruel it seems to the characters.

Did You Know: The title of the work comes from an Alan Nourse novel known as The Blade Runner. William S Burroughs wrote a screenplay based on this novel, which defined a blade runner as someone who sells illegal surgical instruments.

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