Blade Runner

The Spoony One | Jan 18 2009 | more notation(s) | 
Blade Runner

A Review by Noah Antwiler

We may never fully comprehend how much movies, literature, games, and the entire science-fiction genre owe to Blade Runner, because it's still so unlike anything else ever made that continues to hold us in awe. It showed us a Gothic, dystopian future whirling with life and high technology, with powerful corporations lording over a neon wasteland in glass pyramids, safe from the oppressive fall of acid rain and drifts of nuclear fallout. It showed us a stark, cold world and made it beautiful and terrifying, and above all, real. Blade Runner changed the way films were made. No, more than that, it changed the way science-fiction was told in any format. The cyberpunk genre had never been visualized so perfectly, and Blade Runner set the standard for that look and feel in every form of media, even in other countries. Akira springs to mind as being the first to fully incorporate the same style into anime with its colorful, brutal depiction of gang-ravaged Neo-Tokyo.

Its influence on gaming is likewise undeniable. My favorite role-playing games include Shadowrun and Cyberpunk, both of which are hard to imagine without picturing the sprawling, burning metropolis seen outside of Deckard's flying spinner. In fact, most of the time I've run any sort of cyberpunk game is to dispense with subtleties and immediately include the Tyrell Megacorporation and its line of near-human Replicants as key facets of the setting. No, they don't make a lot of sense in relation to the established rulebooks and they're about as brazenly incongruous as making Andy Warhol the chief god of my D&D pantheon, but there's a part of me that simply can't envision the dark future without them. It might seem derivative to you, but I've always found that it helps the players connect to the setting when I feed them such memorable imagery as the opening shots of the movie and remind them of the noisome chaos of the bustling streets in the middle of a toxic downpour while a titanic blimp drones overhead scrolling sixty-foot-tall ads for soda and selling tickets to the off-world colonies.

Blade Runner is very special to me because it does three of my favorite things: it engenders fierce, unflagging fan loyalty; it is the subject of ceaseless, fruitless, hilarious Internet-wide debate; and it is also Not Very Good.

That look on your face? That bewildered expression that's slowly twisting into a mask of rage? It just...oooh, puts a tingle in me to imagine it. Especially over Blade Runner. I've known nerds who would stab a man for far, far less insult. Sharpen your knives, fanboys!

I blame myself for not being able to properly suspend my disbelief at the setting, but there will always be a little part of me that keeps asking why, constantly over-analyzing what is meant to be an artistic exploration of the human condition. I'm not diminishing Ridley Scott's technical achievements in any way; you could take almost any random frame from Blade Runner and consider it a work of modern art. It's beautifully-filmed, with an immersive mood and a haunting score. It's so visually-arresting that I think everyone feels compelled to scrutinize the movie to better understand the weighty stuff they've just seen. It's got a lot to say about mortality and humanity, but as a story it doesn't make a lot of sense, the setting is rather poorly-explained, and the science-fiction is beginning to grow rather dated.

My issues with the film begin with its basic premise: that humanity has developed a race of artificial sentient life forms with superhuman capabilities and endurance known as Replicants to do their off-world terraforming and space warfare. Sometimes these Replicants go rogue, and they're such perfect copies of humans that specially-trained police units known as Blade Runners are required to identify and terminate-- er, sorry, retire them before they cause any harm. These supercops are called Blade Runners for no real reason as far as I can see except that it sounds really badass. They do not, as their title would suggest, run with sharp objects or engage in the illegal smuggling of knives. They kill super-strong androids.

Makes sense. Recruit a new division of cops to hunt and terminate the killer superhuman clones. Or we could just, y'know, stop making Replicants exact human copies. I understand why you'd want robots to help terraform colonies in hostile environments and to fight battles in deep space, and I certainly understand the desire to create a female robot and have sex with it (you have no idea!) but why would you create the robot so human-like that the only way to maybe identify it is to bring in a trained cop to sit down with it in an interrogation room and give it a specialized polygraph test? Can't we tattoo a barcode on its face, or implant an RFID chip, or give it an off-switch, or develop a blood test? Doesn't their resistance to extreme temperatures and toxic environments open up a whole new slew of potential tests that are far more reliable?

What possible reason could there be to give your techno-soldiers and radioactive material handling robots simulated emotions and falsified memories? Aren't free will and human feelings the last things you want in a slave? And how is Tyrell still in business if they keep designing hunter-killer machines with a proclivity to go berserk, so much so that the cops have created an entire division to police them? Imagine the lawsuits Tyrell is open to when they knowingly continue to create deranged, freakishly strong death-bots who might snap at any minute. You could argue that the Replicants' perfection is a reflection of Tyrell's God-complex, creating a superior life-form merely to dominate them with demeaning work in order to bolster mankind's hubris. If that's the case, I would argue that Tyrell really needs to get out more.

The movie is also weak as a police procedural. Why should Blade Runners bother with Voight-Kampff tests when they have photographs of every Replicant ever made? And shouldn't most Replicants look alike? Why bother making them distinct if they're just bred for menial labor and combat? Just put their photos out on the wire, roll out the dragnet and issue an A.P.B.! Worse, Deckard continues to confront deadly combat-model Replicants alone, walking into dangerous situations without radioing for any kind of backup. It's not very cinematic to call for a tactical response team, but when Deckard kicks in the door to a shadowy hotel hunting military veterans without even telling his boss where he's gone, it makes him look like a complete idiot.

I find it rather amusing that Edward James Olmos' career has come full-circle since Blade Runner. He's gone from playing Gaff, the inscrutable paper-folding hunter of robots masquerading as humans to Admiral Adama in Battlestar Galactica, who is also threatened by robots secretly posing as humans. In fact, in one of the supplementary features of the new Blade Runner DVD set, Olmos mistakenly calls Deckard a Cylon before correcting himself. At least Dr. Baltar came up with a more reliable Cylon test than the frackin' Voight-Kampff machine.

And there it is. The synthetic pink elephant in the room. Or the tiny silver origami unicorn, as it were. Few fan debates have raged as long or as bitterly as the question as to whether or not Deckard is revealed as a Replicant at the end of the film. You might have expected the argument to die down ever since Ridley Scott himself admitted that he is. Not so! Despite the evidence, many fans refuse to accept it. It's fascinating to me. It's hard to argue against the director of the film, but that won't stop me. Is he a Replicant in the movie? Sure, but that's only because Ridley Scott is a thundering idiot who should have kept his stupid trap shut.

You can point at all the visual evidence that you like, and I can still poke holes in it; it's not like Deckard couldn't have been thinking about Rachel's programmed memories when we see the unicorn vision, and later when Gaff leaves a paper unicorn as a calling card at the end of the film. Why bother sending a Replicant without heightened abilities to hunt other dangerous Nexus-6 combat models instead of a ninja death-machine? Why program him with a drinking problem and painful memories that inhibit his performance? Why bother giving him a negative disposition towards his own job instead of a mindset of blind loyalty? And why go to all the hassle of arranging this with the police department when there are about a thousand more reasonable solutions to hunting four fugitives and you've already got an entire squad devoted to the practice of hunting Replicants? Why would Tyrell immediately tell Deckard about the implanted memories and let him in on the notion that some Replicants don't know their own identity? It's like playing Clue and finding out that you were the killer all along. It just seems like if Deckard is a Replicant, a lot of people are just screwing around with him for no good reason.

Even if everyone agreed that he is a Replicant, my argument is that he shouldn't be. Harrison Ford himself fought for this notion, saying that otherwise the audience would have no emotional representation in the story. A Replicant Deckard has no character arc, no journey to complete that hasn't been laid out before him by some Machiavellian puppet-master with Coke-bottle glasses. He's just come to the same realizations that every other Replicant has. Blade Runner only has meaning if Deckard rediscovers his humanity and finds that he can grow to trust and love a Replicant, learning to see the humanity in them as well. Why else would Roy Batty bother going to such lengths to torment and then save Deckard at the end of the film if not to teach him the value of his own humanity and his long life-span? He's telling Deckard to cherish every moment, showing him what humanity really is in his last moments. "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe," he says. That line is an outright mistake if Deckard is a Replicant.

I'm in the lunatic fringe on this issue, I think. Even I can admit that I and the other Deckard-Humanists are basically sticking our fingers in our ears and shrieking "La La La La!" over the undeniable facts. But dang it, you can't take the sky from me. I'll take Philip K. Dick's word for it, and in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, he's human! True, Do Androids Dream has almost nothing to do with Blade Runner except for similar character names, but I'm counting it as a victory for truthiness! So nyaah!

And to prove that my hypocrisy is boundless, I waited in front of the store on release day to pick up the Final Cut edition of the movie in that collectible briefcase thingy that won't fit on a shelf. Anyone who touches my origami unicorn will lose their hand, I swear it.