If cinema loves depicting dystopian futures, then Blade Runner is the king of them all. Massively influential and often hailed as one of the greatest movies ever made, the future it portrays becomes ever more plausible with the passing of years. When Ridley Scott screenwriters David Peoples and Hampton Fancher were crafting their screenplay, Scott’s theory was that their world of 2019 would be run and owned by maybe three corporations in a kind of industrial imperialism. To exemplify this, he gives us a close up of a human eye, an enormous Orwellian orb filling the screen, gazing out at the infinite, fiery cityscape that opens the film. This isn’t just an eye though; it’s a mirror, a human sensory organ reflecting the toxic panorama of the world it invites us into. It’s a symbol of us, looking out at what we create, at what we might be.
Moments later, within the giant Tyrell pyramid, we see another eye, scaled up on the screen of the Voight-Kampff machine as an investigator called Holden questions a worker. It’s an interrogation that purports to be an interview, an “empathy test” that, we later learn, questions the very substance of humanity for the purposes of finding replicants, artificial humans used as slaves in “the off-world colonies.”
Why is this all so resonant, and why does it continue to be? Even though Blade Runner bears scant resemblance in plot terms to its source material, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the sense of underlying paranoia and contemplations upon the human condition are similar. This is dystopia as art, a reflective meditation on what it means to be human, of what it might come to mean in the near future. I still remember coming out of the movie theater the first time I saw it, not sure what I’d seen, not sure how to categorize it, only certain that it was superior storytelling, a myth of the future clad in science fiction clothes.
If the SF of movies and TV in the seventies was all clean lines and antiseptic, white corridors (besides Scott’s own Alien at the close of that decade), Blade Runner was a glimpse of what we might actually get—the same cities as now but taller, wider, darker and grittier, with populations composed of all human creeds and colors crammed together amongst its grim canyons. While I wanted to believe in the technological conceits of Kubrick’s 2001, of a powerful, science-based society that would see humanity out there colonizing the solar system, the future depicted in Blade Runner seemed more likely. There’d be plenty of technology, yes, but it wouldn’t necessarily make our lives better. Indeed, it would be haphazard, reflecting the erratic thought processes and selfish agendas of its makers and we’d probably create more problems than we’d solve.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why Blade Runner was a flop at the time. There might have been plenty of eye candy in the form of a fully realized vision of a Babylonian future, but anyone expecting a Harrison Ford action vehicle (as the movie trailer promised) was disappointed. What they got was Ford as the weakest character in the film, a disillusioned anti-hero of questionable moral outlook, brought back into a manhunt against his will. It’s not that he doesn’t have free will, it’s that he doesn’t have the freedom to exercise it. And yet, because Deckard is ostensibly the audience’s identification figure, his sense of resentment and general discontent at being drafted come across well—in that regard, we feel for him.
We’re never told precisely why he got out of the business of being a Blade Runner first time around though, only that he’s “the best.” What’s he doing when we find him, at the beginning of the film, buying noodles from a street vendor? How does he get by; what are his plans? While Roy Batty’s band of replicants have a goal—they want more life—Deckard seems tired of his, aimless, anonymous, a man threading his way through the crowds until his old boss conscripts him back into action.
It’s these open areas in the characters that help make the film so thematically rich, along with its allusive qualities that recall ancient Greek dramatic structures, biblical imagery, and film noir. There’s so much human code in there drawn from so many disparate sources, so much stuff that seems recognizable but which ends up taking me down new lines of thought that my personal reading of Blade Runner changes every time I see it. I know I’m not alone in being drawn back time and time again but movies that are so layered and bear such continued scrutiny are rare indeed. And as there’s five official versions—more if you include the various TV cuts—Blade Runner’s achieved a status few other movies have. Each one is a classic in its own right that provides another window on the same story, a different slant and potential reading of an already multi-layered film. Even Ridley Scott refers to his own “favorite” version, but there’s no definitive cut.
This is apt, as the movie is also about the unreliability of memory. If a man is the sum of his memories but we can’t even rely on that, then what are we? Self-aware at least, as Rachel realizes. The eye is only one recurring motif in the movie; we also have technology’s reflection of the same in the form of cameras and photographs. Photographs are strewn throughout the film, emblems of replicants’ false, implanted memories, narrative devices in themselves. It’s a photograph that symbolizes Rachel’s false memory of her mother, photos that are Leon’s most precious possessions, it’s a photograph that allows Deckard to track down Zhora. Photographs are displayed along the lid of Deckard’s piano—all, we understand, by the close of a couple of versions of the film, potentially false memories if Deckard is actually, as implied, also a replicant.
The camera and the eye, the technological equivalent to the organic original, which Scott says is Orwellian, the big brother overseeing this world. But the eye can also be taken to be “I,” as human identity, the thing that Roy Batty wants more than anything, life to extend and explore. He meets his maker in an effort to do so, and kills him when Tyrell can’t grant his wish.
I’m fascinated by the idea of artificial intelligence, and whether it’s possible. I hope it is. I think the term is something of a misnomer—intelligence creates itself, “I think therefore I am,” as Pris says to Sebastian in the film echoing Descartes’ dictum. (Is Deckard an echo of Descartes?) Like I say, it’s self creating—if humanity ever manages it, it’ll probably come about by accident. And it will be a child, perhaps one who will transcend us. Or maybe that we’ll become one with—if we don’t destroy ourselves through other means first, that is.
Blade Runner isn’t about our AI offspring, it’s about us and how we treat each other, our hubris and our compassion, or lack of it. It’s about becoming human, the changing nature of humanity. I don’t think we’re born human, I think we become slowly human, if we learn, over a lifetime. If there is a future where we become indistinguishable from machines, then we need to be sure we don’t carry over the cycles of abuse from the generations of flesh.
There is the prospect of Blade Runner sequels on the horizon. If these movies concentrate on the “universe” of Blade Runner, if they expand only upon the surface world as established in the original but ignore the themes, they’ll be lost. Of course, even if it turns out that any attempted sequels do suck, we’ll always have the original(s), a movie that always seems different on every viewing. But if the scriptwriters are allowed to explore and expand upon the real subject matter of Scott’s masterpiece, the stuff of human identity and where we’re going, perhaps they’ll have something worthwhile to add to the lore and the philosophy. What they must do, above anything else, is reflect the world around us, as Scott did in 1982. The world’s changed a lot since then—maybe we’re a little closer to the dystopia it portrays. But, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.