May 26 2011 12:01pm

Blade Runner: Just a few questions, ma’am

Mention the combination of detective and science fiction film and one title instantly comes to mind: Blade Runner. But while Ridley Scott’s 1982 film may work as science fiction, it’s actually a terrible detective film, and Rick Deckard is one of the worst investigators ever.

Consider: his job as a “blade runner” requires him to discover and eliminate “replicants,” organic robot people created to do dangerous off-world work. Now, these replicants are built by private industry whose motto is “more human than human,” so they look exactly like us. Which means that to pick them out, Deckard must use a special machine. But does it simply beep when a replicant enters the room, or show them in a beam or light, or anything useful and efficient like that?

Nope. It looks the potential replicant in the eye and breathes at them.

And that’s because to detect a replicant, a blade runner has to get the suspect to sit quietly and take a standardized test. That’s right, future law enforcement depends on a version of “No Child Left Behind.”

All detectives ask questions. From Philip Marlowe to Columbo, it’s their primary job skill. But imagine Humphrey Bogart asking Peter Lorre to sit still and answer the 30-40 questions it takes to spot a replicant (and the new Nexus 6 need over a hundred!) I mean, really—even the densest replicant, slack-jawed Leon, catches on after one question about turtles.

Ah, you say, but Deckard ferrets out Zhora by tracking down her snake supplier. If you watch the scene closely, though, Deckard actually hits a dead end with Taffy Lewis, who snidely offers him a free drink in his bar. Deckard then tries to call Rachel, but she snubs him as well. It’s not his whip-smart investigative technique, it’s dumb luck and alcoholism that keeps him in the bar long enough to see Zhora do her snake dance.

The film’s theme, about the nature of humanity, is significant, and it’s the kind of idea that draws people to SF in the first place. But the story that supports it falls apart the moment you look past the spinners, giant Coca Cola advertisements and Daryl Hannah’s eye makeup. A detective can function in almost any genre, but you can’t use that other genre as an excuse for having a terrible detective. Blade Runner tries to sell us on the brilliance of its hero, a detective (who may be a replicant as well) so good he’s forced back on the job to deal with a crisis. But based on his job performance in the film, I don’t think Rick Deckard could find the remote control lost under the sofa cushions.

Unless the couch first answered a few dozen questions.

Alex Bledsoe, author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, and the forthcoming Dark Jenny), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the first Tufa novel, the forthcoming The Hum and the Shiver.

The Picard
1. The Picard
The "dead end" with Taffy Lewis actually put Deckard in the place to find Zhora. In other words it wasn't a dead end it just seemed so for a bit. The Voight-Kampff test used by Blade Runners is a test to screen suspects in order to find a replicant. You first have to have suspects before you can test them. That takes detective skills.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
As The Picard says, the "dead end" got Deckard into the right place. He then finds Zhora, so not much of a dead end.
This is probably more realistic then a set of puzzle pieces that lead directly to a killer. Unlike the expectations we get from CSI, there often isn't a single trail leading inescapably to the suspect.
If the detective is lucky, they get some clues that point in a good direction. Mostly, it is just getting out and knocking on doors.
Tim Maughan
3. TimMaughan
Isn't this the whole point though? Deckard is a terrible detective. He was quit when he came in here, and he's just as quit now. He hates his job. He is tired of the killing. His wife left him to run off to the colonies. He's questioning his very existence. He keeps getting beaten up. He's having a really bad day at the office.

And most importantly he just doesn't care anymore, he's just going through the motions. Frankly, I always find it all hugely refreshing. It is one of the many things that make Blade Runner such an unusual take on both genres, even to this day.
The Picard
4. Lit
In the book he is a terrible detective, they don't want to put him on the case, but they have no choice as their other detectives keep getting killed. In the movie he is supposed to be the best blade runner, but ironically he is just as bad a detective as in the book. In the blade runner documentary they discuss the problem that Deckard doesn't appear to do any detective work and has no idea what he is doing, they said they didn't have time to add the stuff as they were already crazy over budget, the film was already too long, and they went far over the date they were supposed to finish on.
The Picard
5. Frank Reade
Harrison Ford actually criticized the movie when it was released, saying, "I played a detective who did no detecting."

Interesting that you mention Zhora's snake, because the scene where Deckard finds the scales in the bathtub was added after principal photography. The Deckard there isn't Harrison Ford at all, but his stunt double.

I never got the overall impression that he come back to the job out of professional pride, but because Bryant threatens him ("You know what you are, pal? You're not cops, you're little people.").

Anyway, who watches this movie for the mystery? The real joy is in the production values, set design, and the lingering ideas of Philip K Dick that poke through the patchwork screenplay, despite the best efforts of 3 screenwriters and Ridley Scott.
The Picard
6. ms
Deckard plays more like a detective from a Joseph Wambaugh novel (give The Glitter Dome a read) than the same old same old detectives we're used to seeing in film or tv. Which makes it work so well.
The Picard
7. Douglas Hulick
Thanks for this post, Alex.

I agree that BR is a good film; I also agree that it's a poor detective movie when you consider the genre of detection itself. Essentially, every lead falls into Deckard's lap, either through luck or chance. He does very little actual gum-shoeing in terms of following leads or even finding suspects; again, most are given to him by outside agencies or chance. Having a suspect is one thing; actually doing something worthwhile with that lead (good or bad) is another.

That isn't to say that luck doesn't play a part in detective fiction: being in the right place at the wrong time is one of the staples of the hardboiled genre. And I can buy that to a degree. But in terms of BR, it's largely the only thing that leads the protagonist to any kind of solution. Zhora was a handy plot device that was handed to Deckard out of the blue; if there had even been a hint of foreshadowing, or some brief mention of information that would have gotten him to put the pieces together when he saw her, it would have made for a much stronger piece of detection (even if it was luck she showed in the first place). As it was, though, she was just there when he needed to take the next step.

As for the Voight-Kampff test: yes, it was clumsy, but in good detective fiction, there ought to be a work-around, be it through informants or street-smarts or some other avenue. And if there isn't a ready work around, then the protagonist needs to find one. Tracking down replicants is Deckard's job--if he knows this machine in a PITA, then he should have other (well-worn) methods that, while not official, help lead him to the suspects, or confirm his suspicions, in the first place. Even if he doesn't like the job, he should be able to do the job: that's one of the core tenets of classic detective fiction.

I have no problem with Deckard being a bad detective; there are plenty of bad/uneven detectives in fiction who still manage to get the job done. Ditto reluctant detectives. My problem is the apparent assumption, by the writers and Scott (and others), that if you throw a bit of tough-sounding first person voice-over on a piece and have the protagonist get beat up a couple times, you suddenly have good detective fiction. There's a lot more to it than that.

At base, BR is a good SF film with a mediocre detective coating thrown over it (I'm surprised no one wore fedoras). And the most frustrating thing is that, with a little effort, the detective aspect could have been made a lot stronger. Still a great movie, but for someone who is a fan of both the old hardboiled noire detective fims/genre and a SFF fan, the two have never seemed to come together for me like they could have in Blade Runner, which is a shame.
The Picard
8. The Picard
I just don't think it's fair to criticize a movie for what it isn't.
Yes Deckard is a detective, yes the movie is noirish but that doesn't
mean that the movie has to meet your expectations for what a hard boiled police procedural should be. The detecting in the movie is enough to move the story along and it makes sense in context. He finds all the escaped replicants through found clues and information realting to the case. However the story is so much more than that. There are some good suggestions made here but as far as I'm concerned they are minor quibbles.
The Picard
9. The Picard
Oh, and Gaff wore a fedora. ;)
Michael Grosberg
10. Michael_GR
Deckard doesn't need the Voigt-Kampf test to find the replicants; he was given their pictures. He knows who they are. It's not like a "normal" detective film where we don't know who the killer is, and that is because Deckard is an assassin and a tracker, not a detective.
The Picard
11. The Picard
@Michael_GR: Good point about the Voigt-Kampff test. It was only used at the beginning on Leon and when Deckard tested Rachel. Both important and excellent scenes.
Michael Burke
12. Ludon
Well, where does that scene with Deckard examining the photographs fit in if he's not doing any detecting in this film?
Noneo Yourbusiness
13. Longtimefan
It is more of a Missing Persons detecting than a Whodunnit detecting. The police know what the replicants look like and show Deckard the mug shots before sending him of to "retire" them.

It also helps that when they are found they pretty much freak out and try to kill him so he is able to establish their Replicantyness with out having to use the Voight-Kampff machine.

If they had only remained calm and agreed to Voight-Kampff (or even insisted on it) then they could have set Deckard up and shot him when his guard was down trying to fiddle with the knobs.

I had never thought about how Deckard was not a good detective in the genre sense before. It is an interesting observation.
Tudza White
14. tudzax1
I have to agree with many of the posts here, Alex is just plain wrong on this one. Deckard goes to the last known address of one of the replicants, which he got from the information gathered on the one that killed the other investigator. He finds clues. These clues lead him directly to another replicant. What more do you want?

By chance and very good luck, this one lead that pans out gets him another one, although it almost gets him killed.

As I remember it, it takes the death of Tyrel and his chess buddy to give him any clues about where to go next, the apartment of the dead chess buddy. That is unfortuneate, but I don't recall any other real leads he would have had before that.
The Picard
15. Jon Grinder
So, to sum up the majority opinion: I love this movie and this movie is great and you're a poopie-head for being critical of any aspect of it!

Haha! Good post, and a good point, despite the Sci-Fi heresy.
The Picard
16. The Picard
@Jon Grinder: Uh... no. There are many thoughtful and specific points made and there was no name calling. This is a discussion thread and dissenting points are welcome.
Bill Capossere
17. Billcap
The problem comes I think from trying to put the wrong kind of architectural addition onto a pre-existing structure. The novel isn’t meant to be noirish detective story. Deckard doesn’t have to deduce where the androids are; he has all their addresses. When at the end he confronts the final three, I don’t think he actually “traced” them there; I’m pretty sure he just gets a phone call from his boss saying where they are. Then he spends a bunch of time trying to figure out if he’ll actually go and confront them or not.

Dick I’d say was much more interested in the theme you mention and had almost no interest in making a detective story. The problem with the movie arises in trying to graft the detective story onto what appeared to be something similar on the surface but really wasn’t at all. It needed probably either a lot more of a major rewrite to turn it into noir or no attempt at all to make it about detecting--stuck in the middle doesn’t do it any good
William Fettes
18. Wolfmage
The Picard @ 8

Agreed. The OP moves from the probably true but largely uninteresting contention that when you say Detective and Sc-Fi in the same breath, the first thing that springs to mind for many people is the film Blade Runner, to the much more dubious contention that the film is a Sci-Fi Detective movie. This conflation is then used to assert that, as a Detective movie, Blade Runner's plot can be evaluated for its strength as police procedural. But that's a category mistake if you don't accept the original designation.
Jesús Couto Fandiño
19. Breogan
There are valid criticisms on this, but I dont think the
Voight-Kampff is one of them. It is not a detective procedure. It is a psychological evaluation. It is about finding out if you only look like an adult human but dont have the breath of experience in dealing with emotions you should have after living 3 - 4decades instead of just a couple of years.

So, for the task, it is a valid tool. Both in-setting, and as part of the theme of the movie.

Apart from that, yes, Deckard doesnt do much but be propelled around by accident and forces out of his control.
20. Freelancer
Yep, Gaff was one hip captain. And that's what the movie is really about. Even when the world had gone to trash, even when non-people are better people than the real people are, hip exists, hope exists, determination exists, love exists, and it cannot be destroyed. Not even by Roy and Pris. Anyway, how could a movie not work when it has Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, and E.J. Olmos?
The Picard
21. dwbrannon
I always assumed that Deckard was the best Blade Runner not because he was a good detective, but rather because he was good at killing replicants and staying alive while he was doing it. Which turns out to be the case here as well, though only because Rutger cut him some slack there at the end.
Joe Vondracek
22. joev
Meh. I agree with many of the posters here; the conclusion of the article only makes sense if you accept the premise. I've never thought of Deckard as a detective; he's always seemed like an assassin to me. He's supposed to "retire" replicants, who are NOT "organic robot people," but could more accurately be described as synthetic humans. How could you build a machine to detect such a person if all of their parts were indistinguishable from those of a "real" human's? This is where the Voight-Kampf test comes in. It's supposed to measure the neurological response to psychological stimuli. A real human's response is different from that of a replicant with implanted memories.

So: the film is not a detective story. It's about what it means to be human. In addition , as every real fan of Blade Runner knows, Deckard himself is
The Picard
23. BOBH
How did Zhora know Deckard was trying to kill her? How did she know he was a threat? Anybody know?

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