frankenwilko’s review published on Letterboxd:
“I’ve done questionable things.” – Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer)
The above line could also justifiably be spoken by the putative protagonist of this piece, state-sanctioned killer, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) – exposition tells us that it was his former profession; that he’s the “best”; and the visual evidence shows that he doesn’t hesitate to target unarmed dancer, Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), in a packed public street – putting several rounds into her back as she crashes through shop windows. Deckard’s face registers distaste? Regret? Remorse? at this cold-as-ice murder, but it doesn’t stop him from doing the same thing to Pris (Darryl Hannah) when he encounters her at Sebastian’s (William Sanderson) apartment. Once again he expends multiple rounds to extinguish all life and movement from her frantically twitching body.
Let’s look at the people Deckard is hunting: we understand that they have escaped from their slave-labour jobs on an off-world colony, hijacked a shuttle to Earth, killed the crew and passengers, and disappeared into the crowded streets. (This, of course, could be untrue – it’s commonplace for the powers-that-be to lie about crimes committed and body counts to support their holier-than-thou narratives – but let’s assume that the replicants have done all the things that they are accused of). A previous attempt to breach the security of the company that created the replicants – The Tyrell Corporation - prompts the assumption that they are trying to extend their lifespan past the four-year built-in obsolescence. They have murdered people in their attempts to escape the life of forced labour that is their lot. It’s an easy allegorical connection to slavery, and the violence necessary to secure manumission. So, hunter and hunted are both killers – one in service of the State and the other to be ‘free’ and to live longer. There is moral parity, but if it’s your job to kill people, then there’s not likely to be any pushback, whereas the replicants’ violence is beyond the pale, and justification for instant and violent death.
I say all of this to highlight something that most mainstream films would not commit to: that there can be moral ambiguity in some of the characters we are asked to sympathise with; that we – as an audience – can find characters simultaneously interesting and repellent. Whether or not you believe that Deckard is a replicant is unimportant, it’s the ambiguity that makes it interesting. In the final meeting between Deckard and Batty, it’s the latter who displays the most humanity, both in his tenderness towards his murdered lover, Pris, and his treatment of Deckard, who in standard film narrative terms has earned a violent death. The justly famous monologue from Batty – Hauer secured his place in the pantheon of screen gods in these few moments alone – has the script’s themes spoken aloud in compelling, articulate poetry.
In the decades since this was released the concept of Artificial Intelligence and what it means to be human, or to bestow humanity on to something ‘other’, has become the subject of an array of interesting film and TV projects – ‘The Terminator’ (1984), ‘Robocop’ (1987), ‘A.I.’ (2001), ‘Ex Machina’ (2014), ‘Westworld’ (2016) – and there have been interesting explorations of the morality of creating something as close as possible to being human and then treating that being as less than human, or questioning why humans would create something to be as close to human as possible and then wonder why the darker aspects of humanity are in turn represented there.
It’s also a rare example of a film that has improved over the years, due to a seamless tidying up of visual effects – an exemplar of using CGI to enhance instead of overwhelm – and the jettisoning of studio-mandated narration and ‘happy’ ending (Jesus! Did they even watch this?!). I saw the original version when it came out in 1982 (yes, film-fans, I’m an old git), and I loved it then. Now, I’m not claiming that my teenage-self had the critical faculties to understand what improvements could be made to this, I only know that that final rooftop confrontation played in my head for months afterwards, rather than the tonally-disparate drive in the mountains; and through the subsequent decades, magazine articles, production notes and fan theories filtered through to me (remember, no internet in those days! The horror!), and the notion of a revised version that might deal with the inconsistencies and non sequiturs, that might banish the accountants (incidentally, the same guys who think that the title ‘Blade Runner’ is better than ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’) who think that they can make art from spreadsheets, might one day become a reality was too delicious to resist.
Final thought: I’ve seen a number of people’s reviews of this, as well as its excellent sequel, ‘Blade Runner: 2049’, in which the reviewers refer to the replicants as “robots” or “androids”. Both are erroneous, and while I don’t intend to make it my mission to correct all the misunderstandings of cinema(!), I do think that this misapprehension of the central conceit is particularly annoying. If it’s a glorified toaster you’re gunning down in the street, I feel the ‘humanity’ theme may lose some of its heft. Or perhaps that’s just me…