With Blade Runner 2049 about to undertake its opening weekend 35 years after the original films release and with new director Denis Villeneuve taking over the reins from Ridley Scott, here is a definitive guide to the tech-noir world of Blade Runner.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is considered the crown jewel of the sci-fi genre. But its triumph in visual effects, contemplation of what it means to be human, and clever utilization of symbols is often overshadowed by the tensions and complications of its production history. Twenty-five years and seven complete versions of the project later, Ridley Scott finally had a cut of the film that he felt truly represented his artistic vision. But the road to get there was not easy.
One of the main problems for Scott was working with an American film crew. The British director was used to stepping behind the camera himself, so their collaborative style didn’t sit well with him. Deciding to change lighting and set designs on the spot, his perfectionism caused many delays and reshoots. Screenwriter David Webb Peoples was asked to re-write scenes during shooting, but production changes happened so quickly that his rewrites were useless as soon as he handed them in. With crew members wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from all the fog being used and actors working long night hours for months at a time, tensions ran high. For several years, Harrison Ford wouldn’t talk about his experiences making the film. Ridley Scott was even fired from the production hours after filming ended, but he was quickly rehired to make different cuts of the film.
Seven different versions of Blade Runner exist, but how different are they? The original theatrical release has voice over narration and a “happy ending” of Rachael and Deckard driving away on a mountain road taken from unused B-roll for Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining . The workprint version was shown for audience test previews, and it has no title crawl to explain the backstory and no happy ending. The San Diego sneak preview has a different happy ending and intro for Batty, as well as additional shots of the final fight sequence. An International Cut adds three violent scenes and the revelation that Rachael has no termination date.
On the other hand, the 1986 US broadcast version tones down the violence, profanity and nudity, with the inclusion of a different opening crawl. In 1992, Warner Bros. wanted Ridley Scott to make a Director’s Cut of the film, but since he was busy with other projects the studio had to honor his requests the best they could. They removed the voice overs and happy ending and added Deckard’s unicorn dream. But Ridley Scott still wasn’t happy with this version. He considers the 2007 Final Cut, the only cut he had full artistic control over, to be the definitive version of his film.
Blade Runner is loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world where there are androids who look exactly like humans created for slave labor on other planets. Later generations of these “replicants” develop their own emotions. When they learn they only have a four-year lifespan, they escape back to earth to find their creator— wreaking havoc and forcing bounty hunters (or “blade runners”) like Rick Deckard to intervene.
REPLICANTS AND THE QUEST FOR HUMANITY
Since the Nexus 6 replicant models are designed to be as close to a human as possible, Deckard has to use a Voight-Kampff machine and a series of questions to determine whether or not a person is a replicant. The 2016 film Ex Machina uses a similar method of interrogation, the real-life Turing Test, to see if Ava (a female A.I.) has human-like consciousness. Even though the replicants have exceptional strength and intelligence, humans force them to be slaves. Some are made to kill, others to give pleasure, but all of them perform dangerous or dirty hard labor.
The subjugation of the “other,” someone that is seen as less than human, is found in other sci-fi films such as Total Recall, Stargate or Planet of the Apes. It seems that the more the genre looks into the future, the more it reflects the darkness of our past—as if to say that despite all of our technological and cognitive advancements, our desire for authority and control at the expense of another will always remain crucial to us. These films are allegories for the Holocaust or the American Civil War, and the ordeals of child soldiers and prostitutes. The replicants, like these real-life victims, are dehumanized, beaten down and imprisoned by someone else in power. Blade Runner uses the theme of oppression to examine how our treatment of others defines us as humans. The more the humans of Blade Runner have to rely on the replicants, the more they are reduced to a primitive state. They become as cold, mechanical and merciless as a machine because they willingly enslave a sentient being to build a society based on social Darwinism. Roy Batty and the other replicants teach us that the good in humanity is rising above our history and instinct to treat others as inferior.
Roy also learns to fear death like any human. He asks his creator Eldon Tyrell to extend his lifespan. The tense father and son-like relationship between a creator and his creation goes back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Prometheus myth. Blade Runner explores this theme of parentage by borrowing from the Greek tragedy Oedipus. Batty goes on a quest to discover his true self, but the closer he gets to the truth the more it leads to his destruction. He learns that his father can’t change his expiration date. Like Oedipus, Roy is chained to his fate of a short life and angry that he does not have the free will to change it. In an ironic reversal of the tale, Roy gouges his father’s eyes out instead of his own. This echoes Rachael’s dream of a mother spider being eaten by her offspring. Creations are usually imprisoned by their creator in some way, and in order to be free they must kill or leave them. Ridley Scott expands on the idea of parentage and creation in Alien: Covenant with his other robot character, David (played by Michael Fassbender).
In his beautiful ending monologue, (which actor Rutger Hauer partly improvised!) Roy mourns his short life. Roy shows Deckard that he is not just a mindless machine; he has real memories, feelings and experiences. Deckard now views Roy as a victim of a cruel society; he was sentenced to an early death from the moment he was born. Although Roy is a combat model—created only to kill—he spares Deckard’s life. Roy’s act of mercy and compassion proves that he values human life more than the actual humans do, and it is a waste for him to die so soon. The replicants are more in touch with their humanity because they hunger for life, live to love, and yearn to be free. As he listens to Roy’s speech and watches him die, Deckard realizes that he is not simply “retiring” the replicants but murdering them.
Blade Runner set a precedent for other robot characters in science fiction films. They are made in the image of a human but always evolve to adopt their qualities, most of all empathy. In Terminator 2, the killing machine learns to care for the Connor family and sacrifices himself to save them. Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence portrays a robot child devoted to his human family. He is devastated when they abandon him for their natural-born son.
FILM NOIR INFLUENCES
Blade Runner is more than just a great science fiction film. It is praised for mixing the conventions of sci-fi with 1940s and 1950s film noir to craft a new genre called future or tech noir. There were already contemporary films that updated and reinvented the themes and visual styles of classic film noir called neo-noirs, but Blade Runner reformulates the neo-noir into something completely new by adding science fiction elements. The tech noir sub-genre was named after a nightclub in The Terminator. Blade Runner shaped how tech noirs would go on to visualize a dystopian future, from the costumes of the Capitol in The Hunger Games, to the low-key lighting of Minority Report, to the cityscapes of Ghost in the Shell. Other tech noirs influenced by Blade Runner are Brazil, Gattaca, 12 Monkeys, and The Matrix.
What elements of the classic film noir genre does Blade Runner incorporate? First, like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, or Double Indemnity, Blade Runner is a mystery led by a lonely, morally-ambiguous hardboiled detective navigating a gloomy and corrupt underworld. Deckard is a lone wolf who doesn’t like to play by the rules. Ridley Scott wanted him to wear a fedora—a quintessential noir costume piece—but Harrison Ford was sick of hats after shooting Indiana Jones. The scene when Bryant convinces Deckard to go on the investigation is emblematic of the noir narrative. Also, the voice over narration from the theatrical version not only helped audiences understand the plot, but was also a throwback to a popular film noir trope.
Visually, Blade Runner recalls the film noir with its use of chiaroscuro lighting—a stark contrast between light and dark in the same image. The opening interrogation scene embodies the noir style with its deep shadows, silhouetted figures, billowing smoke and old-fashioned fan. The image of steam rising out of the city streets accompanied by a jazzy saxophone soundtrack recalls the neo-noir Taxi Driver, but the synthesizers give the score a futuristic techno twist. Blade Runner also uses neo-noir lighting with monochrome shots in shades of yellow and blue.
Blade Runner employs the film noir visual of venetian blinds during the scene where Deckard seduces Rachel. Rachael embodies the classic noir figure of the femme fatale: a mysterious, attractive and charming woman the protagonist wants to tame. She even has the hairstyle of 1940s bumper bangs. But the love scene between Deckard and Rachael doesn’t quite succeed in establishing their lust for one another; her hesitancy to kiss him and answer his seductive questions borders on force or rape. The dark shadows of the venetian blinds symbolize how trapped and threatened Rachael feels.
THE CITY OF ANGELS
One of Blade Runner’s influences is the definitive neo-noir Chinatown. Like the 1970s Jack Nicholson film, the city of Chinatown is a strange, gritty and exotic place that is controlled by corrupt leaders. Ridley Scott fills this cramped city with smoke, frost and a never-ending rain to make the dark streets of Los Angeles more tangible than a typical futuristic landscape. Los Angeles is a common urban setting of classic film noirs and neo-noirs such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, White Heat or L.A. Confidential and Pulp Fiction.
Scott uses a limited amount of light and dark shadows to give the streets a tight focus. This intimacy makes the world more personal, so that even when Deckard is walking outside he is trapped like a rat in a maze. The only freedom from these claustrophobic spaces is in the spectacle shots, particularly the opening scene of the Hades landscape. Famously, this was not a computer-generated image but a thirteen-by-eighteen foot miniature model using nearly seven miles of fiber optics and more than two thousand lights.
One of the few times Deckard is ever in a place that doesn’t seem like the walls are closing in on him is when he’s at the Tyrell headquarters—the pinnacle of society and wealth. But even though you can see the open sky and sun, there’s still a sense of entrapment. The room is so high off the ground and so removed from the rest of society that it even confines the powerful political figures that live there. This why one of the first changes Ridley Scott made to the film after its first release was to get rid of the ending that shows Deckard and Rachael escaping the grips of their totalitarian society. The pastoral footage from The Shining is too jarring. Taking these two characters out of their dystopian world feels too disconnected and artificial. The scene was only included per the studio’s request; they worried that the audience would not be satisfied with the ambiguous ending Scott wanted. Thus, the ending of the Final Cut keeps the moody and dark elements of film noir and leaves the future of Rachael and Deckard unknown.
SYMBOLS: THE ORIGAMI AND THE UNICORN
Detective Gaff taunts Deckard with tiny origami figures throughout the film. The first origami—a chicken—conveys to Deckard that he would be a chicken if he walked away from the mission to kill the escaped replicants. The second is of a man with an erection, hinting towards Deckard’s attraction to Rachael. The last origami figure is a unicorn; its meaning depends on which version of Blade Runner you watch. In the first three cuts, the unicorn seems like a nod to the film’s animal motif.
This motif is a larger aspect of Phillip K. Dick’s novel, where animals are nearly extinct and only the rich can afford to own them, leaving the poor and middle-class with robotic ones. The novel’s title, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? wields animals as a metaphor for what we consider to be reality. If the robotic animals look and act like real animals, what’s the difference? What defines “real?” Does it lie within us, or is it untraceable?
In the theatrical version with the happy ending, the image of a unicorn (a creature usually found in fantasy stories) represents Deckard’s desire and impossible longing for another world—a world filled with natural beauty and freedom outside of his harsh and mechanical city. The ending manifests this idea when Deckard and Rachel leave their dark metropolis for a sunlit countryside. The unicorn figure could also symbolize Rachael, since both are rare and beautiful creatures. Also, in the ending of the International Cut, Rachael is unique because she does not have a termination date.
In the Final Cut, the unicorn suggests something else entirely— the idea that Deckard may be a replicant. It references Deckard’s dream of a unicorn in a forest—possibly an implanted dream that only replicants have, such as Rachel’s. Gaff may have had access to Deckard’s planted memory files and uses the origami to indicate that he knows his secret. Another clue that Deckard may be a replicant is his obsession with photographs. Replicants use the doctored childhood photographs to prove their existence. Furthermore, at the end of the film Gaff tells Deckard that he’s done a “man’s job.” In a deleted scene, he adds “but are you sure you are a man?” It is never explicitly stated whether or not Deckard’s a replicant and left for the audience to decide. But even the filmmakers disagree on this issue. In interviews, Scott has said it’s a possibility, while Ford said he preferred to think of his character as a human. Perhaps we may get more answers in Blade Runner: 2049.
Blade Runner uses the tech noir genre to get audiences to contemplate what defines humanity. Gaff delivers the film’s final line through the classic noir visuals of dark shadows and a steady rain. It is the replicants who are the ones to truly live—more in their short years than the humans do. They are the only characters that show a wide range of emotions, from immense joy to profound sadness. The replicants are also kind and compassionate: Rachael and Roy both save Deckard’s life even though it’s his job to kill them, Roy rescues Pris from a life of prostitution, and Leon is deeply upset when Deckard murders Zhora.
Ironically, the machines of Blade Runner exhibit the best parts of humanity— they care for others and want nothing more than freedom and peace. Their struggle to survive forces them to appreciate every aspect of their short time on the planet. We admire these beings because they strive to experience and witness everything they possibly can. Through the replicants, Blade Runner teaches us that even if our memories leave us when we die and disappear like “tears in the rain,” that doesn’t mean they are not worth making.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD and loves writing about women in film, soundtracks, and 1960s/1980s culture. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss and Instagram @crolins