The debate has raged for 25 years now: Is Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the haunted and self-disgusted anti-hero of Blade Runner, a human or one of the replicants (humanlike androids) he’s supposed to be hunting? It seems a moot point: No one in the movie is quite human. And this is certainly by design, and a gorgeous design it is. It explains why I always come away from Blade Runner impressed but slightly cold to it.
Ridley Scott marshalled a brilliant troop of artists and designers to realize the Los Angeles of 2019. No film had looked anything like it, though the visuals were heavily informed by the artwork in Heavy Metal magazine, specifically “The Long Tomorrow” illustrated by Moebius. Blade Runner unfolds in a drenched, smoke-filled inferno of neon and fluorescence, with the stink and steam of industrial waste and ethnic food mingling in what’s left of the air. What happened? The movie never says; the milieu doesn’t much figure into the story, which is structured as a detective story in futuristic dress.
Yes, even in the later editions where Deckard’s world-weary, much-derided narration has been retired, Blade Runner retains its noir flavor. It’s essentially cyberpunk Raymond Chandler, with the protagonist slouching through the city, poking his nose where he shouldn’t, and bumping up against colorful urban creatures. (“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” wrote Chandler, though Deckard is both tarnished and afraid.) Yet a lot of the clue-following doesn’t make much sense; Deckard is only trying to track down replicants, not trying to get to the bottom of a mystery — there’s no big Chinatown-like conspiracy involving the Tyrell Corporation, which manufactures the replicants. Blade Runner is more of a what-am-I than a whodunit.
Deckard is a killer, and a good one, though, of late, a grudging one. Harrison Ford’s performance is a study in exhaustion and soul-sickness; his only light moment comes when Deckard puts on a nasal, nerdy voice to get into the dressing room of Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), a replicant who works as a stripper/snake charmer. Like William Munny in Unforgiven (written by Blade Runner‘s co-scripter David Webb Peoples), Deckard is a violent man who no longer takes pride in his brutal prowess. Yet even the laconic Clint Eastwood was able to give Munny some humanity, even some dry humor. Ford’s Deckard is at the outer limits of burnout. (Remember Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy thinks Marion is dead and he drinks himself into a guilt-sodden stupor? That’s pretty much how Ford is all the time in Blade Runner.) So he’s a tricky character to anchor such a massive and flamboyantly visual production — unless, as I suspect, director Ridley Scott considers Los Angeles the movie’s main character.
Deckard’s change of heart is supposed to come when he falls in love with Rachael (Sean Young), an advanced, nonviolent replicant modelled on the niece of bigwig Tyrell (Joseph Turkel). The heart of the movie is meant to emerge in the scenes in which the nonhuman Rachael brings out Deckard’s humanity. But by many accounts, Ford and Young didn’t get along during the long shoot, and it shows in their scenes together, which also carry the burden of Young’s ineptitude as an actress. She looks the part, but it’s as if she’s competing with Ford to see who can be the least expressive; she wins in a walk. There’s nothing going on between the actors or their characters — Vangelis’ score works overtime to emote for them as they fall into a hollow embrace.
There’s infinitely more going on with the other replicants: Brion James as the bitter, working-class Leon, Cassidy as the viciously mistrustful Zhora (she goes right from her intro scene to her death scene but makes her few minutes count), Daryl Hannah as the pixie-ish but dangerously desperate Pris, and most obviously Rutger Hauer as the perversely playful Roy Batty communicate with us far more vividly than anyone else in the movie. (Only William Sanderson’s amiable J.F. Sebastian, the toymaker who designs replicant bodies, suggests a beaten-down but still viable humanity among the film’s human characters.) The replicants seem to be split down class lines: Pris and Roy are punk-haired aristocrats who’ve fallen on hard times, while Leon and Zhora work among the scum of the earth (or off it). We sense more passion between Pris and Roy than we ever do between Deckard and Rachael. The meaning seems to be that humans have become so ground down by their squalid surroundings they’ve lost the ability to feel, while the replicants’ emotions are fresh, pure, not taken for granted (or drowned in booze, as Deckard’s are). And because they only live four years their experiences are all the more intense.
For all this, Blade Runner is some kind of classic. The visuals, the eclectic and depressive score, the oddness of the replicants’ (and their portrayers’) seeming to be in a different movie from Deckard — it all coalesces in a powerfully elliptical way that has attracted much somber analysis over the years. Deckard the mumbling blank has inspired reams of speculation — he’s a replicant, he’s the missing sixth replicant (for years, until the 2007 “Final Cut,” M. Emmet Walsh’s detective Bryant told Deckard that six replicants escaped and one died; now he says two died). Like Star Wars, though to a much greater extent, Blade Runner‘s rather simple story has acquired mighty mythic resonances among the fans.
Seen now, it wears its prestige a bit more elegantly, and we’ve seen 25 years of the movies, comics, and anime it influenced; certainly it’s stranger and more difficult than any comparable summer blockbuster in recent years. After this movie, Ridley Scott’s particular beer-commercial style got shallower and shallower, until he bottomed out with ugly hackwork like Gladiator; here, though, he still shoots like the same man who made Alien, and during the final Deckard/Roy face-off there’s a creepy shot of water running over a white wall, while lightning casts the shadow of Deckard’s gun and then takes it away — it’s very reminiscent of the final Ripley/alien face-off in Alien.
Blade Runner was far from the first post-human film, but it was the first to seem to revel in its machinery. Despite the bluesy, defeated tone — sold most heavily on the soundtrack — Scott’s heart is clearly with the replicants and the shiny sets. Though it’s a triumph of visual futurism and an ornament to sci-fi cinema as well as to cinema in general, I resist it on some level. It feels grouchy and impacted except for the moments of gaudy, bizarre violence, which have the same effect on the movie that Roy’s sticking a nail through his hand has on his rapidly dying nervous system — they jolt the movie to life, in a punitive, not entirely healthy way. This overstimulated opus about the soul of a machine is, paradoxically, a pretty soulless machine itself.