I was “late” to Blade Runner. I was too young to see it when it came out (I was 4 in 1982, and my parents weren’t taking me to R-rated movies just yet). Since it was R, I didn’t catch it on endless afternoon HBO reruns the way I did a lot of other movies from that time period. I don’t think I actually saw it until I was in high school, and when I did finally see it I was a bit underwhelmed.
I was still in that “everything needs to be kinetic” mode, and Blade Runner’s lack of extensive action and visceral thrills didn’t quite do it for me. It was a bit of a disappointment, since I’d gone through that 90s cyberpunk tabletop RPG phase (Shadowrun mainly) and I was hoping that the “grandfather” of it all, at least movie-wise, would become a new favorite. It wasn’t until I gained an appreciation for the whole noir detective thing several years later, with their emphasis on mood and their aura of distrust, that Blade Runner finally clicked with me. It still isn’t a personal favorite, but it’s a damn fine movie.
Funny enough, despite my initial “rejection” of it for a lack of then-appropriate aesthetics, it’s on that level that I appreciate it the most nowadays. It’s a visceral experience, it just isn’t the fast-paced action piece I was expecting at the time. They call the genre cyberpunk because of its inherent distrust of systems– absentee governments, corporations ruling over most aspects of life, and a general distrust of anything outside of the things one can immediately, intimately influence. Technology can’t be trusted because it’s outside of your control. Other people cannot be trusted because they have their own interest, or the interests of their corporate overlords, in mind. Your environment can’t be trusted, because it’s been mangled and polluted by the forced mentioned above. That loner archetype that heads up a lot of these stories may always be some grizzled detective type or some iteration thereof, but it’s a role that’s supposed to represent anyone in such a future– we’re all ultimately alone, even when we think we have someone with our backs. It’s that post-WW2 cynicism you see in noir transposed to all of society. At that time it was about men returning from war to find their place in society changed, what with women working and their own importance knocked down a few levels, but the cyberpunk genre took that even further. You’re kinda lucky if you’re even human, much less a man who just finds himself less privileged and in need of a new direction.
That’s what I get now from Blade Runner. It takes place in “the future,” but it’s about how the very act of being human is devalued as larger forces gain more influence. A corporation manufactures Replicants, but these mass-produced clones have built-in obsolescence and other protocols to limit their humanity. Most of the actual human population is reduced to living in filthy, run-down cities long neglected by those in power. There’s promise of escaping Earth to live on colonies on other planets and moons, but that means living with said Replicants and the threat of them turning on you because of the neglect of their creators. And the very fact that your only “escape” is to leave your home planet for lands unknown doesn’t say much for the current state of humanity. Abandonment is usually a last-ditch effort, and its that ever-present sense that that’s the only rational choice makes Blade Runner’s tone damn oppressive. That’s what works for me the most now– it’s a suffocating movie, and a brilliant stroke of tone and formalism.
And that’s ultimately the choice every significant character makes in this movie. The Replicants have to abandon their assigned roles, and their only chance of comfortably surviving until their given death date, in order to strive for a sense of humanity and purpose. And by doing so, even if they hadn’t murdered their human masters, they’d be marked for death simply for attempting to be more.
That brings us to Harrison Ford’s character, Deckard. He’s just as much a product of his system as the Replicants. He may have left the police force, but he still dutifully sticks to the law and hunts down rogue Replicants. He may have a semblance of freedom by becoming a private investigator, but he’s just a freelancer working for the same masters. It’s all about deluding himself more than actual release from control. He thinks of himself as the lone wolf rebel, but he’s really just another lost man looking for a new role in a scheme that doesn’t need men like him anymore. He carries out his mission to track down and dispose of the Replicants, and in that sense he’s no different from them in terms of purpose. He’s carrying out his assigned job without asking the questions that get you marked for disposal. It’s only when he finds out that Sean Young’s character, who seems all too human to him at first, is also a Replicant and gets marked for disposal when she escapes her corporate castle/prison, that Deckard finally shows some inkling of breaking free from the system and behaving like a human. When he finally rejects his role and runs off with her at the end of the movie, despite the fact that he’ll become just as hunted as her, he finally embraces his potential as a human. He doesn’t have to escape to the colonies, but he abandons society as he knows it.
That’s where I don’t really buy into Deckard being a Replicant. The whole purpose of the movie seems to be about how this human, who never questioned what it is to be human, finally sees that potential in beings he was led to believe were sub-human. Roy, Pris, Rachel, and the other Replicants he meets in the movie show a wider range of human emotion, personal strengths, and follies than Deckard ever does in the movie. It’s that juxtaposition of “more human than human” that makes his progression work. He needs to face something “below” him that’s actually “above” him in order to make the choice that defines who he is. He chooses to be human and reject the system that only nominally treats him better than the enslaved, manufactured working class. If Deckard is a Replicant, you don’t get that juxtaposition. You just get a twisty ending that doesn’t have the same impact. Ridley Scott can be a damn fine filmmaker at times, but by insisting that Deckard is a Replicant he doesn’t seem to really reflect upon his work. He’s looking it as a fan looking for Easter Eggs and call outs and other stuff. It’s a game rather than a movie, and in doing that you’re pretty much devaluing the movie. It’s no longer a movie to ponder or immerse oneself in or anything like that, it’s just a hidden image puzzle on the page opposite of Goofus and Gallant. If that’s the movie Scott intended to make, then I’m glad it accidentally ended up being something more.
Also, when I saw the new 4k restoration a few weeks ago, that was the first time I realize that J.F. Sebastian was played by William Sanderson, the dude who played Larry from Newhart. I bet his brother Darryl and his other brother Darryl were Replicants. There’s a far more interesting fan theory for you. Newhart can be in the same cinematic universe as Blade Runner and the Alien franchise, and I guess that means Predator is in there too because of AvP. Predator 3 should be a flashback to George the handyman’s youth where he was hunted by a Predator and survived.