Blade runner Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, initially released in 1982 and re-issued as director’s cut after ten years, is a tech noir film based on a 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” by Philip K. Dick. In a nutshell, Blade Runner projects a grim future world of ecological catastrophe and authoritarianism, where astonishing wealth and technical achievement starkly contrast with barbarous hordes living in squalid urban areas. Blade Runner’s protagonist is Rick Deckard played by Harrison Ford, a weary, reluctant bounty hunter whose targets are replicants, that is, cyborgs usually constructed with limited life spans for dangerous missions beyond planet Earth.
Deckard is assigned to hunt down and destroy a group of renegade replicants who have disobeyed strict orders against returning to Earth. The genetically-engineered renegades have escaped from enslaving conditions on an Off-World outer planet. Driven by fear, they have come to Earth to locate their creator and compel him to prolong their short lives. In the 2019 Los Angeles of Blade Runner, technology overwhelms and despoils the environment. The city rots with waste products of its over-technologised, over-commercialised culture. Looming over this dark city is the Tyrell Corporation Building – the massive, high-security home of Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), “tyrant of technology.” Linking back to a mad, arrogant history that includes Frankenstein, Moreau, and Forbin, Tyrell is the inventor of the Nexus-6 replicants. Designed as militarised slaves, the replicants have been manufactured full-grown with human intelligence, but without the emotions that might counteract servile functions.
Their superhuman bodies have been fabricated from cloned organs, implanted with fake memories, and limited to a four-year life span. Beautiful but disposable machines, they are little more than commercial products with no rights. Reflecting contemporary weaponised technology, they have been created though military and industrial collaboration. Yet despite their programmed servitude, the replicants have developed emotions and autonomy.
Under the leadership of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), four Nexus-6 androids violently rebel and return to Earth to demand an increase in their life span. However, they are not allowed exist on Earth – their very presence is a crime punishable by death. Functioning as part of the corporate system, an entire police force, known as blade runners, is dedicated to eliminating returned-to-Earth androids as so much toxic waste. The Environmental Protection Agency and the homicide squad have merged, suggesting not only that persons and industrial processes have merged in the replicants, but also that government and the corporations are indistinguishable. This fascistic police force despises the replicants for their superiority, fearing that they might eventually replace humans.
Using a flawed imprecise test, the corporate police attempt to identify androids through their lack of empathy. It is the humans in Blade Runner who lack emotions, making them more robotic than the robots. The central example of emotionless, dehumanised humanity is blade runner Rick Deckard, a “cold fish” assigned to eliminate the rebel replicants. Part of the technological apparatus, Deckard functions – like the replicants – as a killer for businessman Tyrell and the militarised corporate government. As such, he represses his own emotions in order to kill creatures that are almost indistinguishable from humans. In fact, he cares little for humans either, as when he fires wildly into a crowd while pursuing an android.
Even after replicant Rachael (Sean Young) saves him from death, he nearly rapes her in a macho display of perverse gratitude. Reflecting contemporary techno-political reality, Deckard and the police operate as part of a self-perpetuating technocracy that forces obedience to the system’s requirements and eliminates anything, in this case the replicants, that might challenge the system’s survival of authority. As Deckard hunts the replicants, Batty pursues Tyrell, the “god of biomechanics.” In his monk’s robe, Tyrell evokes the divine authority of the technological priest, the alchemist, and the occultist. In a confrontation that evokes the monster meeting Dr. Frankenstein, Batty demands that Tyrell re-engineer the replicants with longer lives.
Batty, like Frankenstein’s monster, wants to be part of the human community. Autonomous technology personified, Batty emphasizes the dangers of an unfinished technology. Having designed a weapon and a slave, Tyrell blind to his responsibilities, refuses to consider the wondrous implications of his machine or address the destructive consequences that resulted. He pays for this when Batty literally blinds him by crushing his eyeballs and pressing them into his brain. As in many earlier science fiction tales, the mad scientist who wants to avow godlike powers gets castigated with death at the hands of the creature he created. The fatal rage of one replicant who annihilates his creator dramatizes the film’s major concern – what precisely does a man do when he learns, as has post-modern man, that his subjectivity is an artefact of society, and that his body is the accidental product of mutation and the manifestation, like a computer or a television, of information. The dilemma is that this man, constituted of information, should be both superior to “natural” men and yet inhumanly, abjectly inferior. On the other hand, the 1992 revised ‘Director’s Cut’ of 117 minutes was released to mark the film’s 10th anniversary with a new digital soundtrack.
It omitted Ford’s predominantly redundant voice-over and restored the film’s original darker and introspective vision. Many Blade Runner enthusiasts favour the intricacy of the film’s imagery in the restored version rather than the sluggish and droning tone of the former film with narrative. The ‘director’s cut’ also substituted a less buoyant and shorter, more ambiguous, non-Hollywood ending, and it introduced a new scene of a ‘unicorn reverie’ at the end. It also highlighted and augmented the romantic angle between Deckard and Rachael, and more clearly exposed that Harrison Ford’s character was in fact, an android himself.ANALYSIS OF THE FILMBlade Runner has attracted opposing interpretations. Most notably, it depicts the threat an autonomous technology to humanity. The film can be regarded as a cautionary tale that warns id against a capitalist future gone wrong, where human feelings and bonds are so severely truncated that a quite literal dehumanisation has become perhaps the gravest danger. While no one is likely to read Blade Runner as a celebration of late capitalism, it is not clear that the film reserved such a distinctly human space outside the logic of mechanisation.
Rather, technological reproducibility is taken by the film to be the condition of things. It would not seem, moreover, that “dehumanisation” is the “gravest danger” proposed by the film, for much that is both grave and dangerous in Blade Runner goes by the name of the human. Far from preserving an essential and organic human dimension which can be opposed to the dehumanised replicants, the film tends to undo that opposition. This undoing is performed not by extending humanity to the replicants – their “superhuman” and “mechanical” qualities are visible to the end – but by disclosing the distinction to be unviable. The blade runner’s means of “detecting” a replicant is significant in this regard: the “Voight-Kampf” test examines the dilation of capillaries in the eye during interrogation. The detective’s eye establishes the difference between human and replicant by looking into the eye of his subject, though judgment is made only by way of the mechanical device which measures what the detective cannot see for himself. The motif of the eye and its gaze runs throughout the movie – the eye superimposed over the city in the film’s opening shot, the eye magnified in the “Voight-Kampf,” the eye of the owl perched in Tyrell Corporations Headquarters, the eyes genetically engineered and grown in the subzero lab, the lenses of various microscopes, the photograph enhancers, the gaze of panoptical devices and advertising projections, even the eyes of Tyrell himself, shielded by thick spectacles and blinded in the Oedipal inversion of Roy Batty’s dramatic patricide.
All this literal and symbolic attention to eyes, this ubiquity of the gaze, only serves to underline the failures of seeing, for it turns out that one can never tell the difference by looking. Rachael’s questions about the “Voight-Kampf” test are pertinent: “Have you ever tried that thing on yourself?” she asks of Deckard, “ever retired a human by mistake?” Because one cannot see or detect a difference does not in and of itself prove that such difference is absent – there may well be internal differences unavailable to empirical detection. Furthermore, the film presents the search for the most essential internal differences and distinctions, such as self-consciousness, emotion, and memory that would preserve the integrity of the human.
Most crucial in this regard is the examination of time and memory, an examination that extends to every aspect of the film’s visual and narrative logic. Most immediately, perhaps, the film addresses the memory of its audience by working in and with a style, film noir, which cannot help but evoke nostalgia. However, the film noir effect of this hybrid of the 1940s and the early 21st century creates a curious effect, since the cinematic nostalgia played out in shadows and muted colours are projected unto the future. The “nourish” resonances work against the grain of a Hollywood nostalgia that is most often the reassuring nostalgia for a morally unambiguous and comforting past.
With Blade Runner, we are confronted by the nostalgia for memory itself, for a memory of something more than a film genre, and for a form of remembering that is something other than a cinematic projection. The replicants’ fascination with old photographs – “your beloved photos,” as Roy tells Leon – is initially treated by Deckard as a quirky eccentricity: “I don’t know why replicants would collect photos. Maybe they were like Rachael, they needed memories.” However, his encounter with Rachael’s simulated past modifies that judgment: for she too has “photographs,” documents that prove her past, give testimony. Though Deckard determines the photos to be “fakes,” supplied by Tyrell to shore up Rachael’s memory “implants” with the illusion of facility, they prompt Deckard’s own poignant reflection over his old photos – photos of absent women – photos that are clearly of another age, figures that within the timeframe of the film Deckard could never have known. Why, then, would anyone collect photos? Because photos are memories to shore up the stories we tell of ourselves. There turns out to be a gap where we expect to find the core of the human.
We need photographs to fill that gap, and “humans” no more or no less than “cyborgs” use the photographic image – which is always a stand-in, a “fake” – to supplement what is missing. The film, in other words, does not merely deviate from the tradition of film noir; the film quotes the genre only to displace its thematic authority – the sense of “mystery” is revealed to be an effect of our faith in the distinction between human and replicant. Blade Runner disrupts that faith by insisting on the inability of memory to restore the presence of what is past, an inability shared by all who live and remember in this movie.
The rhetorical question asked by Gaff (Edward James Olmos) near the film’s end – “Too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?” – speaks directly to the matter of a movie that has, so it seems, effectively presented the deconstruction of its presiding opposition between the human and the machine. It is also apparent that the movie cannot tolerate to conclude under the sign of such indecisiveness, at least not in its studio release, for the suspended conclusion – one which has suspended oppositions – is supplemented by Deckard and Rachael’s escape in the final scene. They have not only escaped the oppressive atmosphere and dangerous blade runners of the city, the have escaped the film’s disorientations, to the liberating blue sky and romantic green world of the “North.
” It is the most transparent of gestures, of course, and however much it fails to respect the director’s cut, it demonstrates that the film has generated such a knot of visual and thematic intricacy that it can be “stabilized” only by recourse to such a pastoral gesture. The film has thus reached a limit of sorts, a limit that reveals that in Blade Runner, when human make cyborgs, it means the unmaking of the human through an anxious recognition that both were assembled in the first place. Thus, technology is not neutral, not docile. Blade Runner offers the vision that technology is our possession and it is up to us humans to limit our ambitions around it.
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