Film * Ridley Scott * Dystopian Noir * 1982
A couple things right up front, I think. First, I understand that there are like seventeen different versions of this movie, and that’s weird. I don’t know which one is the “right” version, but I watched the one on HBO Go. It has stilted, unconvincing voice-overs and apparently that’s the bad cut. So I watched the wrong movie I guess. That said, I did take the time to read a brief summary of what was different in the director’s cut and the final cut. I don’t suppose the various changes make that much of a difference to the essence of the film. The other thing to get out of the way is the categorizing of the film as dystopian when it kind of isn’t. Dystopia is a word that gets used a lot to describe things which are not, strictly speaking, dystopian. However, I am of the opinion that language is a cool thing that evolves to meet our needs. I was looking for a word to describe the overall vibe of the world in Blade Runner, and dystopian feels pretty right, even if the story being told has little to nothing to do with a proper anti-utopia. Unless you’re an android.
So, what about that story, then? I’m so glad you asked! Everything goes down in Los Angeles, in the dim, distant year of 2019. Don’t let the fact that the film takes place three years from now bother you, that’s always the trap of near-future sci-fi. Apparently we can build cyborgs to mine asteroids, but we’re still using Apple II desktops with green-ass CRT monitors to do basic office work. Whatevs, though, because the most important aspect of the film is its look. And what it looks like is a neoliberal income gap nightmare that takes place under leaden skies and nonstop rainstorms in Southern California (which I surmise are due to some kind of corporate fuckery). Also because this is a straight up noir film. It’s all here: the world-weary detective, the harsh lighting and stark shadows, stylish swirling cigarette smoke, and an enigmatic woman who is clearly a dame. Oh, and then there’s robots.
The set-up about these robots is that they are in fact androids. And not quirky, Data-like androids. They’re dangerous because they’re superior in most ways to humans, but there’s no way to tell the difference on the surface. They look, talk, and react to basic situations like humans. Blade Runners, which is to say special police that “retire” rouge androids, have a complicated series of questions that they can ask suspected androids. These are designed to illicit visceral emotional responses in humans, but androids can’t really deal with them. There is some amount of paranoia about these androids – they are very much artificial life forms – so the Tyrell Corporation, which makes them, came up with a two part plan so as to not freak everyone out. One, the androids are used exclusively as slave labor off-planet. Two, they’re designed to self-terminate in four years. Now, what’s especially fucked up about this is that these androids have evolved consciousness. Not only that, but they have been implanted with false memories so that even they think they’re human. Oh, and they don’t know they have abbreviated life-spans. Naturally, a group of the hot new android model starts to figure some of this shit out, and they come to earth for some answers. The Tyrell Corporation is not exactly thrilled about this, so they enlist a Blade Runner to take care of the problem.
Blade Runner makes some pretty dire assumptions about the trajectory of American society. I mean, look at this place. Much of the action takes place at street level, and the streets are awful. The natural sky is gone, and has been replaced by darkness and seemingly never ending rain. Inhumanly enormous skyscrapers block out most of the non-sky anyway, and the streets are cast in eternal shadows. Most of the world is teeming with downtrodden humanity, although some areas are entirely derelict. The mode of development seems to be that when an area becomes unlivable society just moves outward, increasing sprawl. Only the fabled 1% get to see the sun, but even the sunlight is a weak, pitiful thing. It’s heavily suggested that the natural world has all but been destroyed (save the surreal ending, which may or may not even be real), so while the movie takes place in Los Angeles, it may as well be anywhere. The assumption is that the world is entirely urbanized while the rest is either a wasteland or a nature preserve for the rich. After all, animals are pretty much all robots at this point, and genetic engineering has replaced natural selection. And this is where the Replicants come in.
The whole deal with artificial intelligence seems to boil down to one question: is artificial life the same as natural life? After that, all the other questions. All of them. Blade Runner grapples with this question rather intensely. While the Replicants have their frightening moments, mostly what we’re shown is a group of beings to be sympathized with. They may be artificial, but they have evolved their own particular intelligence, and the film seems to make the argument that such life should be respected. Deckard, at the very least, comes to this conclusion, even if the various endings draw different conclusions about the state of the world. The end of the original movie feels wildly out of place – there are trees! – yet the fact remains that Deckard has accepted the right of Replicants to live. As a brief aside, there is an interpretation of other cuts which suggest that Deckard himself is a Replicant, but I didn’t get that vibe from this verison. I’m not sure it really matters. That said, if this is the point of the film, that AI life is valuable, Blade Runner seems to have a solved a problem that doesn’t really exist.
Blade Runner, and by extension its source material Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which I shamefully admit to having never read), are part of a larger segment of science fiction that concerns itself with the issue of artificial intelligence. This, of course, is the job of science fiction, right? To speculate about the future so that we can hopefully be more prepared when technology catches up with us. That’s key, because artificial intelligence is a thing that’s going to happen. If one takes a look at the rate of progression, and the direction that science and technology has taken since the turn of the 20th century, there really isn’t anywhere else to go. What works like Blade Runner accomplish is to prepare us for the inevitable. When humanity manages to create a life form, how will we treat it? This particular story is a pessimistic one, but if we keep asking the question, perhaps when the time comes we’ll have a better answer.