Science Noir: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner

1982 was a banner year for science fiction at the cinema. However, one picture stood out above the rest. Carl Roberts does the detective work.

In 1982,the cinema seemed to have an influx of science fiction movies. Many of them were forgettable Star Wars rip offs, all designed to get the public in, show them any old rubbish for 90 minutes and then get them out again, ready for the next show. However, in an overcrowded summer blockbuster season, there were many a stand out science fiction film. Of course, nothing would or could compete with Steven Spielberg’s personal epic, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, the ultimate summer tent pole movie. The world went crazy for Spielberg’s tale of a cute little alien mistakenly abandoned on Earth.

Chasing E.T.’s trailblazing tail were several other worthy science fiction films. Disney’s Tron blew us away with (for its time) cutting edge visual effects, the starship Enterprise warped back into cinemas in the exemplary Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and John Carpenter’s  remake of the classic Howard Hawks 1950’s chiller, The Thing was amazingly gory but wholly enjoyableHere were three completely different movies that all grabbed our attention (if not exactly all of our cash at the box office) and showed that science fiction and fantasy films were back in a big way. However, arguably the best science fiction film of 1982 limped badly at the box office, got bad reviews and was written off as a gloomy failure. Now, 36 years later, it has the praise and recognition it deserves.

Conflicting Clues

Blade Runner

Blade Runner was and to this day is, one of the best science fiction films ever made. It’s blend of noir, action and visuals takes the breath away. Here was a future that didn’t look rosy. Here was a future that showed human arrogance, mankind’s unenviable march to self destruction and perhaps the greatest and most foolish creation in history, the replicant, a robotic man made human looking slave. Before the film unleashes its visual assault upon us, an opening scroll informs us that replicants, finally becoming self aware, have staged a bloody mutiny, resulting in the deaths of some of its human owners and innocent bystanders on an off world colony,a heavily advertised utopia. This has resulted in replicants being declared illegal on Earth under pain of death. A new breed of police officer named “blade runners” are tasked in tracking down and detecting any passing Replicant and “retire” them. The top blade runner is Dave Holden, a chain smoking, grey suit wearing cop tasked with testing workers with a test known as Voight-Kampf. Things don’t go too well for Dave as the man he is testing, Leon, is a replicant, who upon realising he has been discovered, promptly shoots him.

Called in to investigate his friend’s shooting and to track and kill the replicants is former blade runner, Rick Deckard. Played with great flair and with understated brilliance by Harrison Ford, Deckard is none too pleased being called back into service. Given the assignment by his former superior Captain Bryant through fellow officer Gaff, Deckard is informed that six Replicants have hijacked a shuttle, murdered the crew and have fled to Earth. One has been killed running through an electrical field but the other five are still at large. Here we are handed a dilemma and our first clue that something isn’t quite right. Bryant shows Deckard the pictures of four of the escaped replicants. One of their number is already dead and makes number five. So,where is number six? We are given conflicting clues throughout the film as to who the last replicant is without ever being given the answer. This, to me, is why the film didn’t agree with critics or audiences back in 1982. This is a thinking person’s science fiction film. We are required to do our own detective work regarding the identity of the final replicant. We are not handed the answer on a plate. We are not handed the answer at all in fact. We, as the audience, are given enough information to reach our own conclusions. I have my own thoughts on this. To my mind, all the clues scattered through the film point to the conclusion that Deckard himself is the final replicant. The unicorn dream sequence, so foolishly cut out of the film by Warner Bros in the original 1982 cinema release (there are 7 versions of the film in total), supports this theory. However, by the same token, the final replicant may be the woman Deckard has come to love, Rachael. We already know she is a replicant but could she be the final escapee from the hijacked shuttle?

World Weary Form

Blade Runner

Harrison Ford is on form here as the weary ex Blade Runner. He’s a man trying to escape from his past. The retiring of replicants have taken its toll on him. He’s no longer interested in hunting down false humans, mankind’s arrogance and laziness making them slave labour and perfect for dangerous work or missions. A replicant dies? Who cares, we’ll just get a new one. Deckard’s reluctance is so well portrayed by Ford, who hated making the film. His constant clashes with director Ridley Scott are the stuff of legend. Both Ford and Scott refused to speak to or have anything to do with each other for years after filming ended but none of the animosity is shown in Ford’s performance. We want to root for his character,we even sympathise with him but deep down,we can’t quite trust him.

Stellar support is offered in the supporting cast by Sean Young as Rachael, who can’t understand or believe she’s not real. She’s a replicant implanted with her maker’s niece’s memories. When we first meet her, she’s strong and tough. When the truth about her is revealed, she’s like a mixture of wounded animal and small non-understanding child. She endears herself to us and we find ourselves rooting for her until the film’s climax.

Daryl Hannah is sadly underused as Pris. She seems to be in the film just to fill a role even though Pris does have her own mission to fulfil. The same goes for the late, great Brian James as Leon. He turns up, acts menacing and then succumbs to his inevitable fate in a sad way. Before his demise, Leon appears one moment to be a frightened man, scared of his upcoming mortality (replicants are in built with a four year life span) and the next, a violent vengeful thug. Any sympathy we start to feel for him disappears. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it shows everyone is so scared of their mortality that they want to fight against it with everything they’ve got. Joanna Cassidy as Zhora fares little better, even though she does get to beat Ford to an almost bloody pulp in a classic sequence with a fantastic denouement involving her character running through panes of glass trying to avoid Deckard’s bullet that she knows will find her. It’s a five minute role that, even though it sticks in the memory with the visuals and her death, feels like a waste.

Eyes Into Brain

Blade Runner

Then we have Rutger Hauer. The Dutch legend is astounding as Roy Batty, the leader of the escaped replicants. From the first time we see him, we view him as the villain. He wants to meet the person who created him, he wants more life. He does whatever is needed to achieve his aim even if it means extreme violence. The problem is, throughout the course of the film we find ourselves warming to him. We want him to survive. We want him to get more life. When the moment arrives and he finally meets his creator, his creator point blankly refuses to give him what he craves, a refusal that irks him and us as the audience. His creator, Dr Tyrell is basically his father and here he is stating that he’s willing to watch his son die. Any true father would sacrifice his own life to save his children. Here, he refuses and feeds Roy a lie to ease the pain of his upcoming demise. Batty murders him by pushing his eyes into his brain, crushing his skull. It’s the act of an angry child to a father’s refusal.

Hauer fills the screen with his presence. We know down the line Deckard and Batty will clash. We wait for it with anticipation. To our amazement, the resolution is both astounding and heartbreaking. The script is fantastic but Hauer’s delivery of Batty’s final speech has gone down in history. The quality of the writing is excellent but this is Hauer’s moment. Here he acts Harrison Ford off the screen. His final words echo though our minds. He’s seen things that no human ever will. It’s amazing to him that upon his death, the moments he’s witnessed will be gone forever. He smiles at Deckard with joy at what he’s seen in his four years and with sadness that his time is over, never to rise or see anything beautiful again. His is not a violent death but a quiet peaceful one, one we knew was coming but find ourselves feeling not happiness at his demise but infinite sadness.

The Future is Uncertain

Blade Runner

The screenplay, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick, is a slow burn. This is not science fiction as we know it, it’s science noir. It’s a futuristic detective story from the 1940’s. Deckard could pass as Phillip Marlowe in the classic films based on Raymond Chandler’s novels. The futuristic sets and visuals are pure eye candy, they take your breath away. This is a dystopian future we are seeing and the film is much better for it. The direction from Sir Ridley Scott is balanced and almost perfect. The ending (not the studio mandated happy ending from the 1982 theatrical release) but the downbeat ending where we must make our final decision on if Deckard is a replicant or not is classic cinema. This is how the film should end. Not as was originally released with a studio mandated commentary throughout the film by Harrison Ford and a happy ending with Deckard and Rachael flying off together into an unknown future (with shots borrowed from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, would you believe?). But with Deckard realising the truth, accepting it and leaving with Rachael knowing that Gaff or some other blade runner could retire them at anytime. Gaff has already found Rachael at Deckard’s home and let her live as a courtesy. Their future is uncertain and we leave the cinema with a foreboding feel. This is Ridley Scott at his best. His direction feels natural.

The film’s greatest triumph however is the classic score by the legendary Vangelis. Already well known for his haunting, uplifting score to Chariots of Fire, here he surpasses himself and creates his masterpiece. His score is the perfect accompaniment to the frames on the screen. A synthesised sound that fits the film like a glove. The opening music introduces us to an industrially polluted world, a future we could not have ever predicted. This is our own doing, our stupidity that has destroyed our world. Vangelis’s themes represent this. It haunts us, penetrates us and makes us feel. From this haunting start, the score builds, rising and falling with the emotion. When we reach “Rachael’s Theme,” the haunting score is accompanied by a fantastic saxophone piece. All the way through the score a classic piano plays in the background, the occasional key strikes punctuating and cutting through the synthesiser piece. Again, this throws us back to Phillip Marlowe movies from the 40’s and helps give the film a classic feel.

Architecture of Humanity’s Near Destruction

Blade Runner

Blade Runner is, to my mind, the best film of 1982. Don’t get me wrong, I love E.T. I think Star Trek II is one of the best sequels ever made and is always going to be the best Star Trek film of them all. John Carpenter cemented his position as one of the finest horror film directors with his The Thing remake. All three are wonderful films that stand the test of time. However, they can’t hold a candle to Ridley Scott’s futuristic detective story. That timeless story of humankind’s greed, arrogance and architecture of humanity’s near destruction.

So now tell me… is Deckard a replicant? Your guess is as good as mine. It all depends on how you view the evidence presented to you… and your own perspective.

Until next time…..

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?”

Carl Roberts

Future of the Force staff writer,older brother of Phil the Cool,Liverpool F.C fan,Star Wars Rules!

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