“More human than human”
I am sometimes late to the table. For the first time ever, I saw Ridley Scott’s science-fiction film-noir epic, Blade Runner—the director’s cut, not the original theatrical version. Now, in recent years, I’ve become somewhat irritated by the proliferation of extended director’s cuts. They are, in most cases, self-indulgence on the part of a director, or else a money grab for studios, but there are a few examples of film re-releases where the revised version is actually an improvement. Such is the case with Blade Runner, which ascends from iconic cult classic to cinematic masterpiece.
Ridley Scott’s direction is masterful from start to finish. The opening sequence is arresting—showing us a bird’s eye view of a future Los Angeles that is dark, menacing and beautiful. Set to Vangelis’ haunting score, this sequence paints an evocative portrait of an industrialized, overpopulated and cynical world of consumerism gone mad, where it is impossible to escape the oppressive factories, warehouses and garish neon of shopping centers.
In this near future, corporations have devised cloned humans known as replicants. After a replicant uprising, these creatures have been banned on earth. Our story centers on a man, Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose job it is to execute these replicants when they try to live and work on earth. These executions are referred to—eloquently—as “retirement.” You understand, seeing the pain in Deckard’s face—a mixture of determination and revulsion—that he hasn’t come to terms with this task and the burden on his psyche is significant.
These replicants have emotions and memory; they are made of flesh and blood. There is very little to distinguish them from the rest of humanity. When Deckard suggests to the replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), that an important memory from her childhood is not her own—that it has been implanted in her—she is deeply hurt, as any of us would be. We are keepers of memory. We are our consciousness—informed by experience. How can we dismiss her humanity?
There are many stand-out sequences, but one that has lodged itself quite deep in my consciousness is the execution of Zhora—it is pure cinematic magic, with carefully wrought imagery that is at once elegant and gut-wrenching. Zhora, a replicant sex-worker, wearing a transparent jacket, runs practically naked through busy streets before a bullet finally hits her, and sends her crashing through multiple store-front display windows. Encoded in this sequence is an eerie meditation on humanity and consumer culture. With her transparent plastic jacket, Zhora resembles the mannequins in the display windows that are shrouded in transparent glass cases. In these display cases there is fake snow falling; just on the other side of the glass, real snow falls to the ground. As Deckard shoots her, Zhora smashes through these cases—glass flies outward, reflecting the garish neon lights that illuminate her final moments. Deckard, and the audience, must deal with the fact that, as much as the idea of her inhumanity has been sold to us, we feel profound loss at her demise. She is vulnerable. She bleeds. She is breaking the lines between what is manufactured and what is real—forcing us to question even the notion of what it is to be real.
I have seen the film only once, and only this one version. I have little interest in the original theatrical cut. Having seen bits and pieces, I find the voice-over narration awkward and pointless, the riding off into the sunset coda pandering and unnecessary. I pay attention to dialogue and the nuances of screen performance, so my understanding of story arcs rarely requires such heavy-handed conventions.
The film is rich and textured, full of eerie environments and haunting ideas about humanity and our uncertain relationship to the technologies we’ve developed. I can only imagine what insights the film might offer upon subsequent viewings.
Blade Runner (1982)
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Hampton Fancher, David Webb Peoples
Stars: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young