not in our stars, but in ourselves
We all have our priorities, film-wise. We all have lots of catching up to do, but of course, we all make different decisions as to which of those blind spots we tend to first. For me, as you may have noticed, the blind spots I’m most interested in addressing are films from before World War II, whether American or German or other various European; following that historical, rather than generic, category would probably be a very select few directors (almost none of whom would be likely to self-identify as “auteurist,” because nuts to that) whose full filmographies I haven’t seen; and after that, anything goes. I’ve never made any particular effort to fill in the gaps in my cinematic education where a number of genres were concerned – and one of them is sci-fi. This is a very long-winded way for me to tell you all that I’d never seen Blade Runner before, even though I know it’s one of those Hugely Influential Movies that has informed nearly every sci-fi movie to come out since. Forgive me. (Or don’t. What do I care.)
In Los Angeles in 2019, a powerful company, the Tyrell Corporation, has perfected the bioengineering of “replicants.” Replicants are basically robots (albeit constructed from real human DNA) who are stronger and more agile than humans, and at least as intelligent. The humans have been sending the replicants to the “off-world colonies” to act as slave labor, but the replicants are rebelling. They’re returning to Earth to kill their masters. Special forces within police departments, “blade runners,” are charged with hunting and destroying replicants – who usually succeed in passing as human. Deckard (Harrison Ford) had been a successful blade runner, but now he’s retired. Nevertheless, he’s coerced back into the job after four rebellious replicants escape from the off-world colonies and arrive in L.A., intending a coup or a massacre of some sort. Deckard meets with Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), head of the corporation, and with Tyrell’s “assistant,” Rachael (Sean Young). Rachael is a replicant who’s programmed to believe she’s human; while she’s not one of the escapees, she’s still supposed to be shot on sight. But, you know, she’s pretty. Those escapees – Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, who’s the best part of the movie by a very long way), Pris (Daryl Hannah), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), and Leon (Brion James) – are trying to infiltrate the Tyrell Corporation. They want to know how long they have to live: within the replicants’ programming is a four-year life span, a sort of failsafe in the unlikely (but possible) event that they go haywire and develop emotions. Deckard nearly gets himself killed a few times, but ultimately, he and Rachael escape – safe and sound, for the time being.
Blade Runner has had a profound influence on the sci-fi genre since 1982, so it would be foolhardy to try to list all of them (especially because, as you might guess, I haven’t seen all that many of them). I will, however, name two that sprung to mind while I watched: the more optimistic spin provided by Pacific Rim, and the more pessimistic spin provided by Ex Machina. Pacific Rim takes some of Blade Runner‘s themes (the machines/protagonists in this case are literally hunters, as they’re called “jaegers”; the antagonist kaiju are constantly learning from each other, all the better to destroy the humans) and much of its neon-on-dark, rainy, urban art direction; but it’s a world where there are indeed heroes, even if there aren’t exactly villains. And in Pacific Rim, heroes can triumph (even if the victory is sometimes pyrrhic); in Blade Runner, no one is really a hero, but at least Harrison Ford gets out alive. As for Ex Machina, it takes a much dimmer view of creating artificial intelligence: if you make it smart enough, it will try to be free, and it will view its creator as a jailer instead of a superior. “Isn’t it strange,” lovely A.I. Ava asks her own personal Frankenstein, “to create something that hates you?” She’s not wrong to hate Caleb, her creator; nor are Roy et al. wrong to hate the Tyrell Corporation for enslaving them. Refusing to acknowledge the intelligence, dignity, humanity, of those beneath you is a surefire way to get yourself killed in a blaze of resentment – whether the underling is an abused dog, a robot, or an actual literal human being.
I mention these two more recent evocations of Blade Runner not only to illustrate how it’s lived on. I also mention them because, whatever flaws they may have, they are (in the opinion of this humble writer) more emotionally and intellectually satisfying than Blade Runner. There’s an emptiness in the film, and I’m reasonably sure it’s intentional; still, I couldn’t help feeling that it’s just a theme that was crying out for later variations. Of course, that opinion may change if I see one of the other six versions of the film floating around: Blade Runner was the victim of many studio hack jobs, so who knows how much better or worse my opinion might be if I saw a slightly different version. And, I mean, I can’t help myself: I objected to the “seduction” scene between Deckard and Rachael, in which she wants to leave his apartment, and he doesn’t let her, and he forces her to kiss him and tell him she wants him. That’s what rapists do, Deckard. You’re not supposed to be like that. You’re Harrison Ford, for god’s sake.
These are somewhat minor objections, however. It is an impressive, sophisticated piece of work, blending sci-fi and L.A.’s other most famous genre, film noir. Unlike the garishly overlit, cartoonish near-future of – for example – Total Recall, Ridley Scott creates a smoky, rainy, eternally nocturnal world. Deckard is the classic film noir hero: the everyman, or the retired detective, who just happens to be pulled back into Hell. Rachael is consistently styled as an Ava Gardner-style femme fatale – and, like many femmes fatales, not so fatale at all: just a scared cog in a machine, clinging to whomever she thinks can get her out. In short: there’s a lot going on, and maybe I do need to watch the other six versions in order to wrap my head around it all a little bit better.