The Humanity of Blade Runner

It’s exciting times to be a Ridley Scott fan.  The versatile director has recently announced his film Prometheus—a pseudo-prequel of sorts to the fan-favorite film Alien.  While any sort of connection to the mature horror film is greatly appreciated, the fact that Prometheus will mark Scott’s first foray into the science-fiction genre in thirty years is pretty exciting in itself.  Though despite how varied in quality Scott’s work tended to be, it at least showed he isn’t willing to be tied down by “genre labeling”

However, Ridley Scott’s return to the genre that had made him the big-named director he is today is exciting indeed, and footage from Prometheus looks to be a grand return to form for the director.  Though the new movie has revitalized interests and discussion of the mythology of Alien—and as to whether or not James Cameron forever ruined the franchise with his sequel Aliens, a film that shifted from the claustrophobic tensions of the original movie to Cameron’s action-pack interpretation in his sequel—it has also laid attention to another Ridley Scott film—Blade Runner.  The 1982 film adaption of Phillip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, was a far more ambitious film than the admittedly small-scaled Aliens; and yet, retained that same feeling of claustrophobia in its depiction of an Earth where corporations rule, and American cities have literally become a hastily, slapped together melting pot of Asian-centric cultures.  Blade Runner is the type of ambitious film from a dedicated director and his staff that is rarely seen in modern cinema.

It’s also known for notoriously bombing when first released in theaters, failing to provide the action-adventure spectacle that many expected from a Harrison Ford-starring vehicle, instead alienating audiences with its slow-moving, “artsy-fartsy” pacing.   Blade Runner has since achieved a level of acclaim and success that has become the basis for all supposed “cult-classic” films; successful enough that Blade Runner has seen the release of five different versions of the movie, all of which are available in specific collector editions of the film (for the purpose of this writing, I decided on watching the international director’s cut).

If there are any similarities between Ridley Scott’s sci-fi films, it’s that, much like Alien itself, Blade Runner hints at an expanded universe; the film’s story of  bounty hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) attempting to hunt down a group of Replicants,—cyborgs who are able to think and act like human beings—feels like simply part of an anthology.  Early on we find that most of humanity has moved on to live in space colonies, while the “dregs” of society are forced to stay on earth—Deckard, among those who are simply wasting away in worn-down Los Angeles.  In fact, Deckard seems like the very representation of what humanity has become in 2019: tired, afflicted with alcoholism, and a cynical outlook towards life in general.  To make matters worse, Deckard has been forced out of retirement by the very people he used to work for—“You’re little people now,” remarks Deckard’s former supervisor, Bryant—and  is put on a case to find four deadly Replicants who have landed on earth after taking part in a violent uprising in one of the space colonies.  The Replicants: Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Leon Kowalski (Brion James), Pris (Daryhl Hanna), and Zhora (Johanna Cassidy), land on earth in hopes of finding a way to extend their own lives, which are limited to four years thanks in part to the Tyrell Company’s efforts to control the replicants.

Whether or not these replicants have a right to humanity, is a theme that, while the film never focuses explicitly, is always in the background; The replicants don’t want vengeance on mankind, or even to rule any part of the world.  What they want most is to be able to live lives that we generally take for granted; it’s a freedom that they’re all willing to kill for—to die for.  It can’t be any coincidence that Ridley Scott’s upcoming film is titled Prometheus, a title that alludes to the Greek god Prometheus responsible for granting human beings with fire; the name also serves as the subtitle for the popular Mary Shelly novel, “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus,” a cautionary tale of personal responsibility and the consequences that come from playing god.  Much like the novel’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) has conquered the role of god with his cyborg creations—especially with the recent Nexus-6 models, of which the replicants featured in the movie are based on– that are able to completely replicate the thought-processes and emotions of human beings.  However, unlike Frankenstein, who hesitates and fears the unholy creature he has created, Tyrell controls his creations by taking away the one thing granted to all living things—the right to live.  Considering that the most basic natural rights—if one should believe in such things—is considered to be accessed by all living things, should that not include androids that are able to form their own emotional responses?

Blade Runner makes for an interesting subject on the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate; whereas “Frankenstein” portrays a more negative stance —the monster is driven to kill because of a lack of emotional response from his fellow living beings– Blade Runner ends on a surprisingly upbeat note.  In his last act, Roy Batty chooses to save Deckard from falling to his death.  Despite Batty’s labeling as a combat android, and despite the oppressive nature of his human counterparts, he experiences a sense of empathy during the last moments of his life.  The Rutger Hauer monologue, which is famously known for being adlibbed by Hauer, is one of the more understated moments in the movie, and it’s ultimately up to the viewer to determine the meaning of the scene.

On the other side of the spectrum, Rachel—a replicant who, unlike the others, is not stricken with a four year life span, allowing her to live almost like an actual human—is a reverse “Frankenstein monster;” unlike the others, she is allowed to experience human emotions, thanks in part to “false memories” that are imbued into her consciousness.  However, her “humanity” is as every bit as artificial as her own replicant body.  It is only when she is forced to confront her own identity, does she come to resemble an actual person.

BladeRunner’s bold-headed attempt at subverting the expectations of mainstream cinema is most likely the cause of its lackluster sales.  BladeRunner is not an action film.  Whereas we’re used to rooting for our masculine protagonists struggling in the face of evil, defeat is well-worn on the face of Blade Runner Deckard; whereas we’re meant to cheer as our hero combats evil, BladeRunnerforces us to witness in horror as Deckard “retires” beings with the capabilities of human emotions.  Humanity has already lost, revealing a futuristic world that isn’t unlike our own. Ridley Scott makes the smart decision of not including any notions of some kind of social-rebellion; apathy seems like the more realistic approach.

Yet, in a sense, a rebellion—no matter how small—is nevertheless sparked.  By not dying silently and anonymously, the “replicants” continued existence fly in the face of their creato.  Even Deckard himself makes a small movement towards rebellion by refusing to put down Rachel, and go into hiding.  It’s inconsequential as to whether or not Rachel and Deckard live or die—there are books that go into detail of the continuing adventures of Deckard, but it’s safe to assume that only those stories helmed by Scott should be considered canon—there is now a spark of hope that true human compassion can exist in a typically robotic, dystopian world.


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