Director: Ridley Scott (US). Date of Release: 1982
Los Angeles, 2019. 3 years ago, and things don’t look too different than they do today. There are skyscrapers and walls which are filled with electronic hoardings advertising coca-cola. The skies are full of rain and air pollution. And, for reasons which no-one can explain, everybody still drinks Budweiser.
Deckard is a former cop who has been called up for the clichéd One Last Job. Six replicants, three male, three female, have escaped captivity and must be tracked down and killed. They have already killed one of their investigators, but Deckard is the Best in the Business. Replicants, by the way, are machines which look like humans, but they lack genuine emotions and the ability to show empathy. Instead they are programmed with false memories and taught to simulate feelings.
Deckard is less a sci-fi hero than a Raymond Chandler hard boiled detective. He even gives a voiceover of his thoughts, which was wisely dropped from later versions of the film. Harrison Ford may be many things but he is no Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. His voiceover sounds stilted and just wrong. I’m reminded of a Film eighty-whatever BBC film show where Barry Norman introduced Witness as Ford’s acting debut. Witness was made in 1985, Blade Runner in 1982.
The film follows two parallel plots. In one, Deckart tracks down the replicants one by one, and dispatches them, despite them being much stronger and resourceful than him. He starts a tentative romance with one of the replicants. While this is going on, 2 of the other replicants befriend a socially inept man as a way of trying to meet his regular chess opponent – their maker. They have been programmed to self-destruct after 4 years and are eager to have him change this.
I had a slight feeling of dread before going to the cinema this evening. I’m not the greatest fan of science fiction films, particularly Corporate Science Fiction, of which this is surely an example. I’d seen Blade Runner on telly way back when, but it hadn’t made a huge impression on me either way. But I know people who like the film. A LOT. What if I ended up hating it and hat to explain myself to friends who have a lot invested in the film?
As it happened, I think that Blade Runner looks great, and whatever problems I have with it come more from general problems I have with sci-fi. I repeatedly had the urge to ask Why? Why did Deckard have to track down the replicants? There are a couple of common sense answers – “because he was ordered to” or, “because they are the real good guys, like the Native Americans in a cowboy film or Vietnamese peasants in a war film”. But there’s a more fundamental answer.
Deckard tracked down the replicants because that’s what the plot told him to do. Replicants do not exist outside the imaginations of the screenwriter and Philip K Dick, who wrote the novel on which the film is based. If you delve deep enough in the Internet, which is not very deep at all, you’ll find acres of pointless speculation about whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant. When sci-fi encourages us to speculate about things which aren’t real, that’s where sci-fi and I part company.
Nonetheless. what Blade Runner does do much better than lots of generic sci-fi is create a future which is not so over-ambitious that 40 years on it just looks silly. Many imagined futures are bright and bathed in primary colours, but contain too much of the technology of the year in which they were imagined. They show us a new Jerusalem which looks either too futuristic to remain believable, or machines which we have since been able to surpass much more efficiently.
Even in Blade Runner, some of the technology looks strange now. Deckard uses an Alexa/Siri voice operated computer to zoom in on specific parts of a photo. This was probably highly impressive in 1982, now it is a laborious process crying out for a mouse. And yes, the idea that transport will be largely in the form of air taxis does seem a little fanciful now. But things like video phones are plausible enough to be part of a possible future. Nothing looks just weird.
What else is noticeable about Blade Runner’s society is that there seems to be little space for joy or friendship. Each character leads an isolated and fundamentally alienated existence, although – like Orwell’s 1984 – a brief visit to the land of the proles shows them to be still capable of liking and loving each other. Up in the skyscrapers, it feels like Deckard’s attempted relationship with an android is partly motivated by his inability to emotionally connect with any of his peers.
What saves the technology in Blade Runner from looking completely unrealistic is that it’s mainly all pretty shitty. Factories belch fire into the sky, and when you venture down from the penthouses into the areas where normal people live, everything feels slightly unsafe (this may just be, of course, a depiction of how rich directors and set designers think the rest of us live). This sense of dystopia is emphasized by the weather – permanent grey skies riddled with drizzle.
Blade Runner is bleak without being too bleak. It has a ridiculous Hollywood ending which was thankfully also removed from later versions. But it treats us like adults, and understands that if you get the look and feel right, it doesn’t matter too much that the plot doesn’t fully hang together. I won’t love Blade Runner like some of my friends do, but I definitely would go to see it again, especially to a version without the voiceovers and fancifully happy ending.