Artistic disputes, creative paranoia and reflections on a posthuman world. VHS Revival recalls one of sci-fi’s most collaborative wonders
Blade Runner may lack the relentless action of some of cinema’s best-loved sci-fi hits, but what it has in abundance is beauty. There are many versions of the director’s 1982 classic, but for me the aptly titled ‘Final Cut’ is the most definitive, offering a much bleaker and authentic vision, and from the very first rumblings of Vangelis’s awe-inducing Main Titles you know that what you are experiencing is something quite monumental. Ridley Scott’s strangely sympathetic opus is a truly seminal work that would mould and shape dystopian cinema for decades to come, not just in regards to imagery, but by popularising the film noir tone that has become intrinsic to the sub-genre. It has its own influences, most notably Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth even using Lang’s ‘Schüfftan Process’ to achieve the movie’s famous ‘shining eyes’ effect) but Blade Runner changed the aesthetics of sci-fi forever, leaving an indelible mark on the collective imagination. Today, the movie’s influence is everywhere. Famed cyberpunk author William Gibson would claim that, “Blade Runner changed the way the world looks and how we look at the world,” while Guillermo Del Toro, a director also known for his unique and sumptuous visuals, described the movie as, “one of those cinematic drugs, that when I first saw it, I never saw the world the same way again.”
The actor responsible for inhabiting that world is none other than Harrison Ford, who had already immortalised himself as both Han Solo and Indiana Jones by the time Blade Runner hit the theatres. Ford’s casting could easily have backfired. After all, such iconic characters carry a lot of expectation, and both Solo and Jones were adventurous, lovable rapscallions with an endearing cockiness and heartwarming sense of irony. Rick Deckard’s trench coat aesthetic is not too dissimilar. He reminds me a little of Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in the actor/director’s genre flipping western Unforgiven, a character as repelled by his environment as he is central to it. He has that roguish appeal but delivers a more sombre, introverted character, portraying a repressed killer with a long and storied career in assassination. Deckard doesn’t embrace the thrills and spills of blockbuster heroism. He clings to the neon shadows and reluctantly eeks out a living, trawling the rundown metropolis in search of lives to exterminate. He is a hero to some, a monster to others, and beneath the icy facade he seems painfully aware of this.
But there is much more to Blade Runner than marquee names, stylish visuals and innovative world building. The movie is a collaborative effort from some of the 20th century’s most talented and influential figures, all of whom contribute to its overall magic and timeless appeal. First we have Vangelis to thank for arguably the most unique and sublimely realised score in the history of modern cinema. The impact that his music has on the movie cannot be underestimated, and for my money his vision of an oppressive technological future is just as important as the director’s in capturing the movie’s central themes of loneliness and fear, and ultimately the question of what it is to be human. His prodigious blend of softly human melodies and robotic nuances communicate the kind of emotions that cannot be achieved from mere imagery, the soundtrack constructing a rich and emotive journey all of its own.
Rick Deckard -Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.
Vangelis was more than aware of the importance of his contributions, producing one of the few soundtracks to stand up as an astonishing piece of music in its own right. This would lead to disputes regarding the material that would endure for many years. It is much cheaper to licence a soundtrack than to have one composed specifically for a film, but their conflict was less about money, more about form and presentation. When it came to composers a peak-of-his-powers Vangelis was a different proposition entirely. He saw his work not as a composition that could be used in snippets, but as a singular vision existing outside of the movie’s imagery that should not be altered or rearranged. Having worked tirelessly for almost a year composing, arranging and producing every aspect of the music, he insisted that his work only be released in its full intended form, a belief that saw the much-lauded soundtrack banished to commercial purgatory for a full twelve years.
Ultimately, Vangelis had no problem with the movie’s use of the material, and in a rare interview with Den of Geek would accredit Scott’s vision as being entirely responsible for his finished work. “Everything came purely from the film itself ― the characters, the settings, the atmosphere, the story, the whole thing,” he said years after his OST had been released in many different editions. Regarding the decade-long dispute, he added “I do not wish to dwell on this subject; suffice to say it was not a particularly happy situation for me. But after all, I am glad that it came out when it did, even that late.” A composer with a tireless work ethic who has spent his entire life on the road, Vangelis is clearly a man of few words.
In terms of Blade Runner‘s themes, there is also the story’s source material to consider. Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep may not have the cinematic appeal of the adapted screenplay, but all the elements are there, and thematically this is very much his vision. In the book, Deckard takes the ‘retiring’ jobs not because he is forced into it, but because he wants to buy a synthetic animal to compete with his neighbours. Something with the epic scope of Blade Runner doesn’t have time for such unabashed satire, but Dick’s paranoid outlook and tendency to draw comparisons between synthetic life and its corrupt human counterparts provides the movie’s emotional core and catharsis. Dick is a hugely important figure in science fiction, influencing not only Scott but a whole generation of writers and directors, including Terry Gilliam (Brazil) Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly), and even Stephen Spielberg (Minority Report). Dick may not have been the most stylish of writers, but conceptually he has very few peers.
A notorious recluse during his twilight years, PKD would confine himself to his room for long periods, and would often disappear for days on end, abandoning his family and returning home after week-long benders with fresh ideas that would consume him absolutely. His later books were based on a concept known as VALIS or Vast Active Living Intelligence System, the author’s Gnostic vision of an extraterrestrial God who enlightened him with a knowledge beyond humanity ― ideas explored in personal writings of biblical proportions. Dick spent years convincing himself that he was being monitored by the US government, a belief that would have him spiral into a personal vortex of often debilitating paranoia. Prone to fits of erratic behaviour, he would one day burn an entire pile of manuscripts on his doorstep out of pure frustration. And no, he didn’t have them backed-up on disc.
By the time Blade Runner was due for release, PKD was a shell of the man whose growing legacy would prove an influence on sci-fi cinema at large. Two weeks before his death he was invited to a personal screening of Blade Runner based on his assumption that Scott’s vision would tarnish his own, but Dick would leave with altogether different concerns. Speaking to author Paul Sammon for his book FUTURE NOIR: The Making of Blade Runner, visual effects expert David Dryer would recall, “I got a call from one of the ladies at the production department saying that Phillip K. Dick was coming down at three in the afternoon for a screening. She told me to assemble an effects reel showing the best of the best. So I did. I planned on showing it to Dick in EEG’s screening room, which was pretty remarkable…I could tell right away that Dick was unhappy; he acted like somebody with a burr up their ass. First he started kind of grilling me in this grouchy tone about all kinds of things ― he wanted to know what was going on, told me that he’d been very unhappy with the script…Dick didn’t seem impressed, even when we showed him all the pre-production art and the actual models we’d used for certain effects shots.’
Dick would demand a second screening ― still without Vangelis’ score ― of the specially arranged material, but when the lights went up for a second time, Dick would find himself consumed by a far more worrying notion. “How is this possible? How can this be?” he began. “Those are not the exact images, but the texture and tone of the images I saw in my head when I was writing the original book! The environment is exactly how I had imagined it! How’d you guys do that? How did you know what I was feeling and thinking?” Dryer would cite this as one of the most satisfying and successful moments of his career, but knowing Dick’s history of self-delusion and paranoia, there’s every chance that Dryer missed the point entirely.
Much like Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner is a flamboyantly bleak vision, one drenched in the toxic neo-noir that would come to dominate subsequent representations of a future overwhelmed by our undying fascination with technology. To establish this the movie relies on a strong Japanese aesthetic, not only because it looks futuristic, but because of the rumbling economic climate of the period. Reagan’s America would experience an influx of Japanese products in the early 1980s, globalisation drastically altering the traditions of American-made businesses as a wave of Asian prosperity resulted in widespread fear and paranoia, the kind that would find its way into the the inherently fascist medium of cinema. Deckard himself is a relic of another time, a retired bounty hunter forced into a mission to assassinate a group of ‘replicants’ who escaped the slave labour colonies of Mars, returning to Earth in order to meet their creator and ultimately extend their expiration date. Replicants are physically stronger than their human counterparts, while being of at least equal intelligence to their creators. They move and behave exactly like humans with the potential to develop their own emotions, but as far as the law is concerned their lives are cheap. Their assassination is nothing more than standard procedure.
How ‘human’ replicants are is never really established in a way that is definitive, and this proves a large part of the movie’s elusive appeal. Those hunted by Deckard are ruthless and manipulative, but would a human be any different if they were stalked day and night? Pris (Daryl Hannah) is an attractive Nexus 6 model whose main function is to provide female companionship, and she naturally utilises the tools she has been given by her corporate god, using her sexuality to help manipulate lonely genetic designer J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), who holds the key to a meeting with reclusive genetics mogul, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel). This is a case of survival, and the survival of any species, synthetic or otherwise, will be fought for at all costs. In the book, Pris shows her lack of humanity by slowly pulling off the legs of a desert spider in a display of childish glee, much to the disgust of her companion/prisoner. In the movie she is harder to interpret. Sometimes she appears naive and frightened, other times manipulative and heartless. She is self-serving and ruthless when necessary, but given the circumstances that is understandable.
There is also the movie’s love interest to consider. Rachel, played with vacant subtlety by the elegant Sean Young, is a new kind of replicant, one who believes herself to be human due to implanted memories borrowed from Tyrell’s niece, and who is therefore harder to detect. Rachel earns Deckard’s love by exhibiting distinctly human qualities, but is she the protagonist her actions seem to imply, or is she simply a more skillful manipulator? She suspects that she is a synthetic entity, and when Deckard all but confirms her suspicions she sets about getting close to him as a way to preserve her own life. When Deckard tries to become intimate, she is lacking the passion and desire that allow her to acquiesce. When she arrives just in time to save his life, we presume she does so in a noble context, but the fact that she was tailing him tells us otherwise. When it comes to replicants, moral distinctions seem not to apply, but in such an atomised society she offers a more dependable love than Deckard is ever likely to find in a fellow human being.
There is of course the fan theory that Deckard is actually a replicant, the addition of the unicorn dream and Gaff’s leaving of the unicorn origami proving hugely suggestive, but I’ve never bought into it. Screenwriter Hampton Fancher has said that he wrote the character as a human, but wanted the film to have a degree of ambiguity, which the best art typically possesses, and Ford has gone on record as saying that he played the character as a human, something he and Scott have agreed on in the past. Dick also wrote the character as a human, which is vital to the novel’s power. It’s a cute notion to think that the opposite may be true, and it’s fun to ponder that notion, but in a movie that questions notions of humanity, Deckard works best as the buoy just managing to stay afloat in a raging sea of emotional turmoil. For me, his role as human is essential to the film’s power and his relationship with the quietly complex Rachel.
Tyrell’s greatest creation, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), proves even more of an enigma, an anomalous entity who is much harder to pin down. Roy is too intelligent to be considered human. Just as human beings have a tendency to see inferior life as irrelevant, he seems to view the majority of humans like cattle; useful when necessary but ultimately disposable. However, there seems to be more to the movie’s antagonist than meets the eye, and in some ways he is Blade Runner‘s true protagonist, the person who can see the distinctions, or lack of them, with the most clarity. In Roy, Deckard meets an adversary who is just as morally ambiguous, who routinely commits abhorrent deeds in spite of his superior intelligence. Roy is a villain because he is no longer of any use to society. His crimes are largely justifiable, which is more than can be said for Deckard.
The unfortunately named Batty is an intense creature whose expressions go from anger to sympathy with such capriciousness it is hard to decipher exactly how he feels, or if he actually does. His fierce pursuit of extended life and the frustration he expels after realising that for him, there is no such thing, is distinctly human, as is his instinct to apologise to the horrified J. S. Sebastian after subjecting him to Tyrell’s fatal eye-gouging. Roy no longer has reason to deceive or manipulate his unwilling accomplice, so why does he feel the need to apologise to a man of such little relevance? It is difficult to pinpoint, but if empathy is based on a shared understanding, it is plausible that Roy is capable of human compassion. After all, he was modelled on an image of humanity, and will inevitably suffer the hardships and injustices inherent. In many ways, Roy is the embodiment of human oppression, a slave who became too smart for his own good, who became a hazard not a benefit, and his persecution is based on a struggle for freedom and individuality, something many of us can relate to.
Roy Batty – I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.
It is this kind of ambiguity that defines much of Dick’s work when it comes to questions of identity. Witnessing the domestication of human life first-hand and the evolving global model, he was struck by the distinctly inhuman nature of a conformed society whose sense of individuality was regressing, resulting in one of sci-fi’s most enduring ironies. In Blade Runner, Scott gives Dick’s cold sense of wit a cinematic makeover, and in many ways his characters are richer, particularly the towering and ultimately doomed alpha male of a synthetic yet distinctly human race. The most telling sign that Roy has in fact developed emotions comes during the movie’s climactic battle. The ease and relish with which he hunts Deckard is significant in establishing his capacity for revenge, but perhaps more significant is the mercy he seems to show the man who was sent to kill him. Roy knows his own life is drawing to a close, but instead of letting Deckard fall to his death he spares his assassin’s life, going as far as to rescue him from impending doom. Rutger Hauer famously ad-libbed the movie’s finest monologue, and it is through Roy’s words that we are able to gain a further understanding of his capacity to appreciate life and all that fills it. This is a distinctly human quality, as is the need to communicate his passions to another living creature, but in the end perhaps it comes down to the simple fact that, like all humans, Roy has no desire to die alone.