An essay on Ridley Scott’s 2007 rerelease of Blade Runner: The Final Cut on Blu-ray
You can almost smell the rain, feel it hammer the leather of your trenchcoat. Hear the harmonic buzzing of blue neon all around you. You can taste the Tsingtao, bubbly and cool on your tongue. If there’s a single flaw worth noting about the Blu-ray transfer of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: The Final Cut (’07), it can be only the opening expositional crawl—an almost quaint artifact of its time, given the 2019 date it supplies—which is still valuable for its brief explanation of the “replicant” as a genetically-engineered, rather than mechanical, variety of android.
Blade Runner is a film valued for its stunning visual representation of the future, the relative diversity of its cast despite the quasi-Aryan villain Roy Batty, and the undeniable success of its all too human drama. But what makes it so timeless, a box-office flop that has been elevated to classic status over the years due to its cult audience, is its unpretentious use of metaphor: The replicant serves as a mirror for the countless ways in which humanity draws arbitrary divisions among its numbers, and the horrific conditions those who are labeled as subhuman, or as “the other,” are subjected to through various sociopolitical machinations.
It’s only shocking if you choose to ignore our history.
For example, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a twenty-first-century bounty hunter—an officer of the law contracted to hunt and kill rogue “skin jobs” amid the golden age of extraterrestrial colonization. Having previously quit the force, he appears reluctant in the film’s beginning to return to his role as the titular blade runner; the expression on Ford’s face as he is briefed on the Nexus-6 synthetics running loose in Scott’s future Los Angeles shows the inner turmoil he faces he each time this sort of work comes his way.
His investigation leads him to the headquarters of the all-important Tyrell Corporation, where he’s greeted by the first of the film’s true stars: the replicant Rachael (portrayed by newcomer Sean Young, who is mesmerizing beyond reason in the role)—a Nexus-7, most likely, designed to be virtually indistinguishable from her human counterparts. And the first of her kind to go undetected by the Voight-Kampff test, which is intended to scope out telltale signs related to human empathy, or a lack thereof.
Her unique situation, however, is compounded by her creator’s having kept her replicant status a secret. Due to false memory implantation, and sheer ignorance regarding her true origin, Rachael manages to answer “well over a hundred” empathy-based questions without Deckard at last reaching a conclusion as to whether or not she’s human.
She is, for the audience, a symbol of the superficiality which is so often used in distinguishing one human being from the next—and one of many clues that suggest Deckard himself may be a replicant, especially given how little we’re told about his past.
Setting aside the romantic subplot—and the fact that they end up together, their uncertain fates entwined in the end—the scene in which Deckard reveals to Rachael what she really is, that she’s a living, organic work of human artifice, with few memories or experiences to call her own, is a testament to Scott’s brilliance as a director. This brief exchange also highlights, I’d argue, just how perfect Sean Young is for playing the part of a replicant ripped from the safety of her genetic cradle and told face-to-face what she truly is.
When Deckard sees how hurt she is by the revelation, he tries to take back his words, to assure her that it was all a terrible joke. But her innocence is lost in light of the man’s knowledge; he pours a drink, and they make love, all to an incredibly beautiful, spacious piano track by Vangelis.
In a later scene, our conflicted blade runner examines photographic evidence while sitting near the piano in his apartment, sheet music laid out in front of him, and daydreams unexpectedly of a white unicorn: a symbol that comes back to haunt him near the film’s end. Left as a calling card by Detective Gaff (Edward James Olmos), Deckard discovers a piece of metallic origami suggesting that the mythic animal of his dream may be a programmed archetype, not unlike the content of Rachael’s own implanted memories. . . .
But it is Rutger Hauer’s unforgettable performance as the fierce and relentless Roy Batty, whose ruminations on the ephemerality of time and experience serve as the film’s thematic backbone, that represents the film’s true gift to the realm of science fiction cinema.
“If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes,” he muses, while trying to extract information about the Tyrell Corporation and its leader from a geneticist who specializes in growing cultured eyeballs.
Much of the conflict driving the film’s intricate plot stems from the widespread manufacture and sale of genetically-engineered, “artificial” creatures, from snakes to owls to the humanoid Nexus-model replicants. Creations tell of an implicit creator, and Scott seems in this film, as with his more recent effort, Prometheus (’12), to explore the intelligence-design argument for God’s existence: Close examination of organic tissue reveals serial numbers beneath a microscope’s lens; android dreams act as windows into the Jungian interconnectedness of creation and the decidedly social human mind, at least metaphorically.
The film presents again and again the dilemma of those seeking in vain for their divine creator, only to find that true divinity is more often found in the mortal subjects of such a cosmic being’s creation. Batty himself is a servant to the undeniable beauty to be found in each passing moment, and the uniquely subjective nature of experience. He reflects throughout the film on the tragedy of both consciousness and memory as fleeting, intangible impressions; he’d no doubt prefer the preservation of his experiences through the relative permanence of, say, art—or even a technology such as the Internet—over the simple act of dying and being ultimately forgotten.
His search for the key to extending his Nexus-6 lifespan, limited by his maker to a mere four yours, acts as a constant symbol for the cruel fact of our own impermanence, the finitude of existence. One can’t help but feel for him, and share his pain, even as we strive to fully comprehend Deckard’s.
As malevolent as the script forces Batty to become in terms of both his inner anguish and violent methodology, we see in him our own basic fears and insecurities reflected back at us: the basic undesirability of death, despite its inevitability; the harshness of a life spent in servitude; and the oft-perceived futility of revolution against an unjust ruling class.
“It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker,” he tells his father-figure creator, Dr. Eldon Tyrell.
And Tyrell asks, “What seems to be the problem?”
“Death,” Roy Batty replies.
His irreverence toward Tyrell suggests that although death comes to everyone at one time or another, there is a certain moral failure in coming face to face with God (figuratively or literally) and demanding His mercy—in demanding the ageless but elusive prize of immortality. And Batty, much like pioneering corporate investor Peter Weyland, of Scott’s Prometheus, finds that such demands are ultimately fruitless. That, like the biblical Job, a mortal man can find comfort and peace only in the acceptance of his own mortality; and God’s intentions, if indeed there is a god at all, are neither to be known nor questioned.
Blade Runner, then, is most successful as an allegory of human beings divided by false social stratifications but united in their universal struggle with the sheer brevity of life. Just as moments glimpsed in the great river of time are invariably washed away—“like tears in rain,” as Batty puts it in the famously improvised monologue that ties the film together near its completion—so, too, are human lives transient and finite.
Alex Kane lives in west-central Illinois, where he works as a freelancer, plays too many first-person shooters, and blogs about culture and technology in his spare time. A graduate of the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, his stories have appeared in Omni, Spark, Digital Science Fiction, and the YA anthology Futuredaze, among other places. His reviews and criticism have also been published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, Bookgasm, and SF Signal. Follow him on Twitter @alexjkane.