It’s #80sMC time again, and this week our very own more human than human Rebecca Aulburn delves into the murky underworld of the distant future of, er, last year (2019) with Ridley Scott’s 1981 sci-fi robo-noir thriller…
Blade Runner – The Ford Escort
Often, the most iconic films of a genre are simply old films translated into a modern setting. Alien, for all its monstrous claustrophobia, is just a science-fiction version of the axeman in the cellar. The Magnificent Seven is just The Seven Samurai with guns. And Blade Runner (the film) owes it’s life to the work of Sam Spade as much as Philip K. Dick.
The neo-noir movement in films (later becoming tech-noir) takes the 1950s hardboiled detective series and imagines them in a future dystopia. Worlds that are shaped by the fears of the present, but where the lone cop struggles against an unfair system.
The world of Blade Runner is one that came to represent the iconic view of Cyberpunk. A dirty crowded mish-mash of cultures all pushed together under the ominous steel first of The Corporation. This was a world shaped by the burgeoning understanding of environmentalism, the dreams of jet-cars and a product placement dream (unless, of course, you count Pan Am (defunct), Atari (bought out), RCA or Bell Phones).
The 2019 Los Angeles exists as a reaction against the 70s & 80s, and while there are newspapers, neon umbrellas and hover cars, the threats of HIV, HDMI, WWW and COVID were not even on the radar.
Blade Runner is a film soaked in metaphor, where every shot shows you multiple stories converging towards the ending. Deckard is a hard-boiled cop that wants to be free, Gaff is the enigma that starts the ball rolling and Bryant is the Chief that wants his pound of flesh.
As the case progresses, we meet the aloof businessman, Tyrell, who has one last job for Deckard, and his daughter, the femme-fatale, Rachel.
All he has to do is find some “escapees”:
Already, we know these are killers. Leon had killed the man who asked about turtles.
The world-building is so absolute that the Voight-Kampf test, which trapped Leon, has entered into the popular lexicon. As Tricorder was to the Trekkies, the questions about Blush Response is to those who study emotions. How do we tell the real emotions from the faked ones?
This is first a tale of ordinary people though – and these are ordinary people leading ordinary lives. The first replicant, Leon, has gone to ground, but his evidence leads to the discovery of the exotic dancer, Zhora.
Deckard’s sleazy approach is perhaps the most interesting as it marks him as the bad guy against a woman trying to live her best life – until she snaps and the Replicant nearly kills him. Her run for her life against the armed hunter reminds you that he is the exterminator wishing to destroy her just for dancing for coins.
Her death is as crazy and beautiful as her life – and yet all the onlookers walk past. Just another death in the City of Angels.
The injured Deckard returns but is attacked by Leon. This is not the killer Leon though, but the hurt, questioning Leon who needs to know who he is. It is still the Femme Fatale who saves the Detective, with a smoking gun, but there is no upbeat here.
With Zhora and Leon retired, there is no longer a question about their humanity. Both of these new Nexus-6 models have the capacity to feel and process emotions, even if they cannot understand them. More Human than Human, indeed.
The remaining models, Pris and Batty get more and more erratic and dangerous as their life-clocks slowly tick down, resulting in crazed behaviour that Deckard learns to fear. It is when Deckard is driven to the point of desperation that Batty reaches down to save him. A concept foreign to a thinking machine. He has learnt what it is to live.
From the Femme Fatale and the Detective, they are left as two lonely souls watching their hours. Will they be hunted or just run out of time?
As the survivors head into the sunset, you are left with many thoughts. The main one – as with the novel – being “Is Deckard a Replicant?”
But maybe that’s not the real question to ask.
The idea of a Slave race who are expendable is the focus of many media; but rarely is it approached so openly as in Blade Runner. Not only are Replicants a stand-in for any impoverished group – whether by race, creed or orientation – but there’s never proof that any of our characters are Replicants or not.
Had Tyrell brought up his daughter to believe she was a Replicant, would she have been any different to Rachel? Is Pris a Nexus-6, or is she just Batty’s girlfriend aping his mannerisms?
Even with the equally wonderful Blade Runner 2049 – there is no actual answer to the Replicant story, rather another open question on whether you can trust your eyes.
While the visuals are stunning, it would be a crime to overlook the work of Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou aka Vangelis.
As with Daft Punk and TRON, the synthesized heartbeats of Blade Runner play underneath the visuals. The single chimes playing underneath Batty’s speech emphasize the “tears in the rain”, while the driving beat in the end titles underly the chases. It never drowns the looks but the glissando is the aural neon that holds the soundtrack together. Again, an album that can be enjoyed even if you’ve never seen the film – and an inspiration for any Cyberpunk dystopia that came after it.
The film Blade Runner can be enjoyed in multiple forms (even one of the best tie-in computer games), with each cut adding something new to it, without ever taking away from its timeless beauty and questions on the nature of what it is to be human. It has been the stated inspiration for Red Dwarf and the visual representation for future worlds from Max Headroom to The Matrix.
Whether it is the sights, sounds, images or story that touches you, the film has something to say to each new generation.
Whether they listen is on them.
Join us again next week for more 80s mischief when we’re doing something a little different. Deputy-headteacher of Booker Hill School and all-round good chap, Stuart Ball accompanies us on a summer-holiday adventure along the railway path to look at 1986’s Stand By Me.