Manufactured Memories and Neo-Noir: Blade Runner at 35

Rutger Hauer, while attending a 2012 Italian film festival in Milan, said of Blade Runner: “Thirty years ago I saw the future.” Now the world might not yet be an industrial wasteland populated by genetically engineered constructs and hardboiled detectives but the man had a point nonetheless. Humanity is moving toward the ‘future’ at an incredible rate. Look at the likes of the robotics company BostonDynamics or medical breakthroughs regarding artificial hearts. Some of Blade Runner rings true today, thirty-five years after its release. No doubt more of the film’s grim predictions will come true as the polar ice melts and wild fires rage across the earth.

Blade Runner is a film about humanity but not necessarily about humans. Based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and set in 2019, the film introduces viewers quickly to the concept of Replicants, constructs that started out as androids but quickly evolved to genetically engineered flesh and blood. They are essentially slaves sent to work off-world on colony planets. If they return to Earth they are hunted and killed without mercy by special police officers called Blade Runners. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a retired Blade Runner and after accepting one last job finds himself at war with his own memories and four of the newest generation of Replicant: the Nexus 6.

If one thing hasn’t changed in 2019 it’s the fact that the gap between rich and poor still exists. Not only does it still exist but it has gotten larger. While the mega-wealthy occupy skyscraper penthouses and monolithic techno pyramids, the disadvantaged eke out a living in the rain-soaked slums of L.A in the shadow of their financial and political masters. Garbage piles up around neon-drenched ramen stalls and the sun is obscured by enormous buildings and banks of black clouds. Through it all the Blade Runners chase the Replicants in a never-ending game of cat and mouse.

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The dystopian world of ‘Blade Runner’. Source

Replicants die young due to a genetic failsafe referred to as “Methuselah Syndrome” by genetic engineer J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson). Therefore, they return to Earth. The replicants seek to live longer but due to their superior speed and strength the humans cannot allow this. Blade Runner is full of dichotomies, enough to fill a book, but one of the more obvious ones is that of Man and God.

Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) is a Nexus 6 battle droid who seeks to extend his life by convincing Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), his creator, to grant him a longer lifespan. Roy is a perfect creation in the eyes of the Tyrell Corporation: born strong, healthy, and ready for duty. Roy is also mortal, however, and this is a glaring imperfection he cannot overlook. What Roy doesn’t realise is that while Tyrell may be his God, Tyrell is still a man. God could not grant Man eternal life and therefore Man cannot grant his own creations eternal life. Ultimately both God and Man die. Roy kills Tyrell in extraordinarily brutal fashion and Roy dies due to the failsafe implanted in him by Tyrell.

“Who created me?” is an easily answered question. It generally has one of two answers depending on your beliefs. Those answers are either “my parents” or “God.” Blade Runner adds a third answer to this question: a man with a test tube and white coat. It is an answer that confounds Rick Deckard towards the second act of the film. He is left questioning his memories, his relationships, and his very existence. Is Rick Deckard human? The question, left open-ended by the film, has been causing arguments for years. I don’t plan to try and answer it here I’ll leave that to the video essays on YouTube but I personally hope no answer is ever given. This is why, thematically at least, the sequel Blade Runner 2049 is a risky venture.

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Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford in a promo image for ‘Blade Runner 2049’. Source

Blade Runner 2049 will be too big to fail and that’s a guarantee. With the amount of star power in front of and behind the camera this sequel is a guaranteed financial success. Stars Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling and Jared Leto are critical darlings and director Denis Villeneuve as well as director of photography Roger Deakins are both highly acclaimed filmmakers. The issue is simple: if Rick Deckard is a Replicant then how has he survived long past his sell-by date? His being human easily solves the problem but blows away that fog of mystery that made the original so captivating. Anything other than a well-thought out story without any easy cop-outs will feel like an insult to Ridley Scott’s genre-defining film.

The sub-genres of science-fiction are complex ranging from the space opera of Star Wars to the speculative realism of Looper. Blade Runner falls into the dystopian genre of cyberpunk popularised by writer William Gibson. Essentially a noir film wrapped up in blinking LEDs and cybernetic prosthetics before being stuck under a neon light, Blade Runner took the cyberpunk concept and ran with it. The world of Scott’s film feels complete as if it keeps going once you stop watching. Even as George Lucas was preparing to wrap up shooting Return of the Jedi, Ridley Scott was giving us a glimpse at a very near future in a place not so far away. This glimpse is perhaps one of the most stunningly visual pieces of art in cinematic history.

Blade Runner opens with a shot of the Los Angeles skyline. Skyscrapers stand side by side with enormous chimneys spouting flame into the eternal smog that blankets the atmosphere. Shades of orange, black and blue dominate the film. Light fighting a losing war against the dark both literally and metaphorically. The split shadows of a venetian blind imprison Deckard in a moral quandary echoing the noir masterpieces of the post-war era. The poetry of Roy Batty’s “Tears in rain” speech (written by Hauer himself) echoes long after the credits roll. All the while Vangelis’ BAFTA nominated score drones and shimmers in the background. Blade Runner’s meditative mood and visual fortitude have influenced the likes of Drive, Her, and countless others, but Blade Runner exists in a different league.

Technology is not something to be feared once it is used in the right way. Things like flying cars, cures and space travel don’t need to be feared. Things like nuclear weapons, super viruses, and psychotic genetically engineered Replicants should come with a healthy dose of fear. The terror on Rick Deckard’s face as he squares off against Roy Batty or any one of his three companions is evident. The Replicants are stronger and faster than he is, capable of killing him with ease. Rick Deckard, like any sane human or Replicant, fears death more than anything else. He fears his own death and the death of his Replicant love interest Rachael (Sean Young). When his partner Gaff (Edward James Olmos) shouts to him “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does?” Deckard decides that even if his memories are manufactured he must fight for something and as we march inexorably towards that future depicted in Blade Runner then perhaps that will to fight is something to hope for.

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