This post contains spoilers for the original Blade Runner film. Reader discretion is advised.
As theater-goers await Friday’s premiere of Blade Runner 2049, it’s worth taking another look at the film’s iconic predecessor. The original Blade Runner, released in 1982, depicted a near-future Earth struggling to adjust to a great exodus of its wealthiest citizens. The story centers on Deckard, a blade runner tasked with tracking down a group of runaway robots. The struggle turns inward as heroes and villains alike confront the fundamental perplexities of existence. Blade Runner, a science-fiction take on the long-running film noir genre, is notably adept at examining these deep, philosophic concepts with subtle cues as opposed to grand gestures.
Based on the Philip K. Dick story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film is set in Los Angeles during the year 2019, a time when most of the affluent people of Earth have vacated the now run-down planet in favor of the off-world colonies. Human look-a-likes called Replicants are common on the colonies but are completely forbidden on Earth, giving the film an Asimovian quality.
Blade Runner draws many similarities between its own depiction of the future and the future depicted in Isaac Asimov’s classic robot series, particularly the novel The Caves of Steel. In both stories, the humans of Earth fear the humanoid machines of the better-off colonies of other planets, and one Earthling detective is called upon to solve a mystery surrounding the return of such dangerous and misunderstood creations. Both stories take many cues from the noir genre, displaying a grizzled and world-weary protagonist who eventually gets to the bottom of a central mystery. Both stories are also much more complex than a plot-focused summary might suggest, as each raises difficult normative queries. Both ponder the same question: What does it mean to be human, and how does society influence our personal belief structures?
Philip K. Dick is the writer of such classics as The Man in the High Castle, an alternate-history novella about the Japanese-Nazi occupation of the United States after the end of World War II, and “Paycheck,” a short story of a man caught between a powerful corporation and its governmental foes. Dick’s stories commonly revolve around complex themes of human nature and society’s command over it; for Blade Runner, this depth survived the translation from page to screen.
The philosophical questions raised in Dick’s stories, however, don’t always have clear answers, and this is never more evident than in the story that produced the film Blade Runner. By the end of the movie, we are still left wondering whether Deckard is human or a Replicant. We never discover what becomes of Rachael, either. Does she manage to extend her short Replicant life span of four years? This leaves the ending of Blade Runner quite ambiguous. How you interpret the ending is influenced by how you interpret life as a whole. Do you believe Deckard’s character is actually in love with Rachael? Will he help her in the future to escape the authorities? Does it even matter that Deckard might be a Replicant, himself? As in real life, we simply do not have all the answers.
Harrison Ford offers a great performance as Deckard, a futuristic version of the classic noir hero, by, ironically, showing a very shallow range of emotion. The actress playing Rachael, likewise, must carry the story forward and make us care about her character through the narrow emotional range of a Replicant. Overall, Blade Runner is a complex film that mirrors reality, providing more questions than answers. That the film avoids definitive moral platitudes is a testament to its genius. In a world of big-budget Hollywood set pieces, and a corresponding diminution of inward exploration, let’s hope the sequel maintains the series’ characteristic restraint. ■