One of the greatest science fiction films ever made is about to be screened across the country in its definitive version. With its towering cityscapes, dreamy Vangelis soundtrack and nods to film noir, the movie offers a vision of a dystopian future devoid of human emotion
Saturday 14 March 2015
It’s entirely apt that a film dedicated to replication should exist in multiple versions; there is not one Blade Runner, but seven. Though opinions on which is best vary and every edition has its partisans, the definitive rendering of Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian film is most likely The Final Cut (2002), about to play out once more in cinemas across the UK. Aptly, too, repetition is written into the movie’s plot (there are spoilers coming), that sees Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) as an official bounty hunter (or “Blade Runner”) consigned to hunt down, one after the other, four Nexus-6 replicants (genetically-designed artificial human beings, intended as slaves for Earth’s off-world colonies). One by one, our equivocal hero seeks out the runaways: worldly-wise Zhora (Joanna Cassidy); stolid Leon (Brion James); the “pleasure-model” Pris (Daryl Hannah); and the group’s apparent leader, the ultimate Nietzschean blond beast, Roy Batty (the wonderful Rutger Hauer). Along the way, Deckard meets and falls in love with another replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), as beautiful and cold as a porcelain doll.
In Blade Runner, as in all science-fiction, the “future” is a style. Here that style is part film noir and part Gary Numan. The 40s influence is everywhere: in Rachael’s Joan-Crawford shoulder pads, the striped shadows cast by Venetian blinds, the atmosphere of defeat. It’s not just noir,Ridley Scott also taps into 70s cop shows and movies that themselves tapped into nostalgic style, with their yearning jazz and their sad apartments; Deckard even visits a strip joint as all TV detectives must. The movie remains one of the most visually stunning in cinema history. It plots a planet of perpetual night, a landscape of shadows, rain and reflected neon (shone on windows or the eye) in a world not built to a human scale; there, the skyscrapers dwarf us like the pyramids. High above the Philip Marlowe world, hover cars swoop and dirigible billboards float by. More dated now than its hard-boiled lustre is the movie’s equal and opposite involvement in modish early 80s dreams; the soundtrack by Vangelis was up-to-the-minute, while the replicants dress like extras in a Billy Idol video, a post-punk, synth-pop costume party. However, it is noir romanticism that wins out, gifting the film with its forlorn Californian loneliness.
It is a starkly empty film, preoccupied as it is with the thought that people themselves might be hollow. The plot depends on the notion that the replicants must be allowed to live no longer than four years, because as time passes they begin to develop raw emotions. Why emotion should be a capital offence is never sufficiently explained; but it is of a piece with the film’s investigation of a flight from feeling – what psychologist Ian D Suttie once named the “taboo on tenderness”. Intimacy here is frightful (everyone appears to live alone), especially that closeness that suggests that the replicants might be indistinguishable from us.
This anxiety may originally have had tacit political resonances. In the novel that the film is based on, Philip K Dick’s thoughtful Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the dilemma of the foot soldier plays out, commanded to kill an adversary considered less human than ourselves, yet troubled by the possibility that the enemy are in fact no different. Shades of Vietnam darken the story, as well as memories of America’s slave-owning past. We are told that the replicants can do everything a human being can do, except feel empathy. Yet how much empathy do we feel for faraway victims or inconvenient others?
Ford’s Deckard may or may not be as gripped by uncertainty about his job as Dick’s original blade runner. In any case, his brusque “lack of affect” provides one of the long-standing puzzles of the film: is he, too, a replicant? Certainly Ford’s perpetual grumpiness (it sometimes seems his default acting position), his curdled cynicism, put up barriers to feeling that suggest it is as disturbing for him as it is for the hunted Leon or Roy. Though some still doubt, it seems clear that Deckard is indeed a replicant, his imaginings and memories downloaded from some database, his life as transitory as that of his victims. However, as we watchBlade Runner, Deckard doesn’t feel like a replicant; he is dour and unengaged, but lacks his victims’ detached innocence, their staccato puzzlement at their own untrained feelings. The antithesis of the scowling Ford, Hauer’s Roy is a sinister smiler, or someone whose face falls at the brush of an unassimilable emotion.
After all, none of the replicants that are Deckard’s quarry are older than four; it should hardly be surprising that they act like kids, too. (“Gosh,” murmurs Roy, as he gazes at a menagerie of living puppets and dolls, “you’ve really got nice toys here.”) It’s as children that we perhaps learn to warm to them, for all their chilling potentiality for violence. They are children, too, in relation to the man who created them: Tyrell, the Frankenstein-father to Roy’s outcast creature. In this regard the film’s psychologically dark and patricidal energies are inescapable: when pressed about his mother, Leon replies “let me tell you about my mother”, and blasts the inquiring blade runner in the groin; when Roy demands of Tyrell, “I want more life, fucker”, it’s the first and only swear word in the film, all the stronger for it, and for being addressed to a “father” who has unfeelingly engineered him, and not out of love fathered him at all.
Tyrell is the Murdochian head of the Tyrell Corporation; one of the good guessesBlade Runner made about the future is that it would not be governments, but corporations who would really run things. Indebtedness to commercial power depersonalises the people in this film: more even than dispensable workers, the replicants are not makers of the product, they are the product; otherwise Deckard is a man scoured out by being a functionary on behalf of what he himself names “the business”. Against this dehumanisation, first the replicants and then Deckard strive to create ways that will restore the personal to their lives. Leon attempts to do so by clinging to photographs; one of the key things that Ridley Scott brings to Philip K Dick’s story is an attention to film itself, and to how it makes meaning for us. Leon’s sentimental snapshots are lit like the paintings of Edward Hopper, though in them the human figures are almost absent, obscured by gloom, hidden in mirrors. Film would hold on to such fugitive moments, screening remembrance for us. Otherwise memories are lost, as Roy tell us, “like tears in rain”; but are his memories real or artificially implanted ones? Are the photographs that decorate Deckard’s piano authentic or fake?
Yet Blade Runner does not gloss over the fact that film can also participate in the dehumanising procedure, turning others into objects for our voyeurism. Our own resistance to this process can be measured in our responses to the replicants’ deaths. Wearing a stripper’s bikini and a see-through plastic mac, Zhora is murdered in a soft-porn, slow-motion spectacle, played out to sad music; but is sadness for her what we feel? When Pris dies, she does so like a beetle thrashing and screeching on her back; the strangeness of it repulses sympathy. Yet minutes later, we shall see Roy mourning her, her death not a matter of disgust but of lament.
Deckard’s own path away from cruelty and disconnection occurs, equivocally enough, in his rejecting the values of the “business” and allowing himself to fall in love with Rachael. There are three love scenes between them in Deckard’s apartment, each played with gathering closeness: the first is hardly a love scene at all, the two stalk in different rooms, doors close between them; the second, just after Rachael has saved Deckard’s life, shows him disturbingly violent towards her, bullying her into saying that she loves him, forcing the words into her mouth. The last scene achieves at last both tenderness and reciprocity; he awakens her from what really might be death, as in a fairytale, with a kiss. “Do you love me?” he asks. “I love you,” she replies. “Do you trust me?” “I trust you.” After these words, Deckard denies his role as blade runner; the two of them end the film on the run, as Pris and Roy have been, their unrelenting mortality running with them.
Feeling connection to the beautiful Rachael is one thing; coming into connection with brutal, terrifying Roy is quite another. Since Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin (arguably the first detective), sleuths have solved crimes by putting themselves in the position of the criminal, by becoming what Poe called a “double Dupin”. For much of the film, Deckard refuses to identify himself with his prey; after all, that might make him no better than an organic machine. Yet throughout, the replicants are busy trying to make him feel as they feel, to share the unnerving experience of “living in fear”. In one of the film’s most brilliant sequences, Roy and Deckard pursue each other through a murky apartment, playing a vicious child’s game of hide and seek. As they do so, the similarities between them grow stronger – both are hunter and hunted, both are in pain, both struggle with a hurt, claw-like hand. If the film suggests a connection here that Deckard himself might still at this point deny, at the very end doubt falls away. Roy’s life closes with an act of pity, one that raises him morally over the commercial institutions that would kill him. If Deckard cannot see himself in the other, Roy can. The white dove that implausibly flies up from Roy at the moment of his death perhaps stretches belief with its symbolism; but for me at least the movie has earned that moment, suggesting that in the replicant, as in the replicated technology of film itself, there remains a place for something human.
• Blade Runner is on general release from 3 April.