“All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain”
An over-populated Earth circa 2019 uses synthetic androids known as replicants for the hard labor of colonization. Their lifespans are barely four years long, their circuitry prone to fits of amoral aggression. Each subsequent version becomes stronger and smarter, the risk of mutiny forever increasing. So they’ve been outlawed on mankind’s home planet, any violator made subject to a shoot-to-kill order on behalf of the law enforcement wing known as blade runners. Amongst the violent cesspool that is a biologic-based civilization of the forgotten many trapped by social and financial burden to this futurist dystopian, these machines crafted in our likeness become our common enemy—the mirror of perfection we will never attain. Freedom reveals itself little more than an archaic concept relegated to the abstract.
This futility has forced Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) into voluntary retirement. You can only kill with impunity for so long before it gets to you, before the “things” you murder are no longer so easily perceived as machine. Unfortunately for Deckard, he was the best blade runner his old captain (M. Emmet Walsh‘s Bryant) ever employed. So of course Bryant sends his trusty right-hand Gaff (Edward James Olmos) to scoop Rick up when word arrives that a group of new generation Nexus 6 replicants have stolen a ship and come to Earth. The wounds of past revolt and fears of the populace make it so this problem must be solved fast. Bryant doesn’t therefore give Deckard a choice and we start to wonder who exactly is the slave.
From here Ridley Scott‘s neo-noir classic Blade Runner unspools into its hard-boiled detective saga pitting jaded pro against deadly perpetrators with nothing-to-lose. With Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples loosely adapting Philip K. Dick‘s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? for the plotting and central existential theme, the eternally unanswerable question is asked: What does it mean to be “human?” Is it about flesh and blood? Consciousness? Organic birth opposite artificial manufacturing? What happens when the lines are blurred so smoothly that you can’t know? It’s easy to dismiss imposters as cruelly unable to experience empathy, but we’ve been known to possess those traits ourselves. And as replicants become more like us physically, what’s to say they don’t catch-up emotionally with survival revealed as our common intrinsic imperative?
What are four more notches on Deckard’s belt besides a reminder that no “last job” will ever truly be his last? Bryant has his hooks in and as long as Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) keeps perfecting his invention, the threat will never going away. If anything it’s growing as replicants begin understanding what’s so unique about their progenitors and therefore also them. But while Deckard ignores this truth when it comes to Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Daryl Hannah), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), and the caught on-camera killer Leon (Brion James) as far as treating them as objects to “retire,” a new evolution gives him pause in the form of Tyrell’s latest pet Rachael (Sean Young). Deckard sees compassion, charity, and love in her. She makes him question everything.
And in turn so do we. Ask ten people about Blade Runner and seven will say Deckard is a replicant. While I can see how this interpretation manifests, I don’t think its validity helps or harms the film’s success. Personally it’s more interesting if he isn’t because we shouldn’t need to be that which we “hate” in order to understand it. Watch TV and the xenophobic rhetoric spewed by our president to witness the widespread proliferation of “us” versus “them.” If a white person born through privilege can only understand the plight of a black man born without by discovering he is black, racism will never die. The message here isn’t Deckard realizing replicants can feel. It’s acknowledging humanity has as much or more capacity to not.
If Deckard was unemployed before the events depicted, you can sure bet he will do whatever is in his power to stay so after. Meeting a replicant that doesn’t know she’s not human only exacerbates the latent guilt and remorse giving him the shakes. Any remnant of the perceived truth that replicants are unfeeling killers evaporates when he watches one destroy its own kind to save his life. We are conditioned to believe so many skewed notions that it’s almost impossible to fight against them unless shown unequivocal proof. Heck, sometimes even that isn’t enough. Sometimes we need the proof to hit us personally. We need to see first-hand that those we so vehemently oppress will reach out and lend a hand despite our unyielding and unjustifiable hate.
This dark, heady content is set within a Syd Mead designed metal-clad and neon-lit world covered in shadows and rain and yet the sight of it is gorgeous to behold. Despite your opinions on the story or adaptation, I’m not sure anyone can deny the visual splendor or seamless practical effects are breathtakingly ahead of its time. Some of the quick transitions feel abrupt, but you’re helpless from getting caught up in the scale nonetheless. This notion of a future built taller to accommodate its population is believable, the squalor and dinginess of every interior a foregone conclusion with complacent citizens stuck without the replicant labor they once thought would be theirs. It’s an aggressive existence, dog-eat-dog. It’s a sensory existence with sex, artificial pets, and capitalistic motivations.
This is partly why Racheal becomes such an integral piece to the unraveling of Deckard’s psyche. She’s this perfect, pure, and loving creature that has been extinct for decades—and yet she’s not real. Artifice is suddenly exposed to uphold the ideals authenticity no longer can. As humans are bred in filth, they have no choice but to grow thick skin and join the circus of fear and paranoia. The only figures still possessed with the capacity for innocence are those we strive so hard to make identical to us without accepting they are. Rachael is thus a vision of a better future as much as a memory of a nostalgic past that’s been since erased from human history. She’s the unicorn that can change Deckard’s entire being.
Unfortunately this reality also makes her a proto-manic pixie dream girl and the subject of a “no-means-yes” rape scene that goes against everything the film is trying to build where her character is concerned. Is she the key to unlocking mankind’s empathy or just another object to own? The fact that the moment is filmed for legitimate romance shows why rape culture is the way it is today—this idea that she’s simply too coy to admit what she wants. It’s a definite blight on an otherwise thought-provoking walk through the human mind via replicant psychopaths who couldn’t be farther from psychopaths when gazed at below the surface vitriol projected upon them. Nothing they do is for bloodlust or pleasure. Everything is for salvation and equality.
In the end we wonder who the real villains are. Scott and company forces us to look beyond cultural distinctions at actions devoid of assumption. If this film was made today, you could draw many parallels to Black Lives Matter and police-backed witch-hunts rooted in fear rather than threat. The blade runners are sent to kill on sight as soon as they recognize their target as their enemy. They hide behind orders and feel nothing about the human body left in the street. Once a community has been indoctrinated with hate and superiority towards another, change only has rebellion left. By backing your prey against a wall, you supply them the permission to attack. What does it mean to be “human?” How about the determined desire to live?