If we are being honest, Ridley Scott is not a director worthy of his reputation. His 1970s were certainly pretty sterling; he entered the world with a very good, if inessential, period-piece parable in the under-seen The Duellists, and then down-tuned sci-fi to elemental levels of fear with the masterful Alien, one of the greatest genre films ever made. Not wanting to be type-cast at the turn of the ’80s, he upped himself through transposing his native science fiction into another genre, not quite as openly horrific, but with no less to say about humanity’s fears: the noir. The resulting film, Blade Runner, is his masterpiece. The ensuing three decades and more have seen him shoot sloppily back and forth between chasing former glories unsuccessfully and entering the bold, exciting new territory of … stripping the cinematic magic whole cloth from the period piece and turning the genre into a drab excuse for materialist rationalism. Again. And again. And again.
But Blade Runner. For Blade Runner, a director can sin many times over, and it will almost always be good enough to wash away the pain. It all boils down to a fundamental level of purpose. Many science fiction films explore what it means that machinery is becoming more humanized, that AI is a valid construction and a force of nature in modern life and that they may overrun the supposed collective “us”, “the humans”. Fair material, and ground zero for a number of unimpeachable masterpieces. But Blade Runner asks a more difficult question: not, as with so many films, “what does it say that machines are becoming humans”, but the more intangible, and more achingly heartrending, “what does it say that humans are becoming machines?” In its detached, muted, neon-bathed cold limbo of Kubrickian chill, Scott essays a hell where even malevolence and anger no longer exist, for malevolence and anger imply passion. And passion is not at home in the world of Blade Runner, a metallic carnival of transitive cars and people densely packed and always moving but never going anywhere. Except children have fun at a carnival. And there is no fun to be had in Blade Runner.
And what invites us down this path of misery and cryptic cosmology? Something as beautiful and elegantly simple as one police officer, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), on a hunt for four “replicants”, artificial human-lookalikes developed by corporations but illegal for use on Earth. They are instead shipped off to perform dangerous, menial labor so that humans on Earth do not have to deal with the mental trauma of determining who is human and who is not, or having to see the conditions with which the replicants are treated. It turns out four replicants have escaped from labor and landed on Earth, and Deckard is tasked with performing his job as a “Blade Runner”: to find the replicants and deactivate them.
Simple on the surface, but the multitudinous, disparate, mostly unhelpful variance of post-release versions of Blade Runner (at least five mostly identical versions exist to this date) have needlessly complicated the film in ways unbecoming of the real complication lurking in wait underneath Scott’s hard-won noir aesthetic. Most notably, a central ambiguity brought on by the inclusion of a single scene of only several seconds length has introduced the meaningless question of whether Deckard himself is a replicant. So much blood has been spilled over this question and to what end? In Blade Runner’s world, until the very final scene, there is no meaningful distinction between replicant and human. Up until the crushing final moments, no human and no replicant shows any meaningful emotion of any kind; it is only when Roy Batty (the leader of the replicants, played by Rutger Hauer) introduces Deckard to the concept of replicant fear that Deckard himself feels any human emotion in the first place. Whether or not Deckard is human is meaningless because Blade Runner is precisely about the dehumanization of the idea of humanity until it becomes a meaningless concept indistinct from the machines they build to populate the world around them. Except those machines, or at least one of them, worry, and that is something Deckard never seems to do.
The fact that people obsess over this question unveils a profound misreading of Blade Runner still pervasive today: that it is about the fear of replicants truly invading mankind to the point where humanity is meaningless. A valid fear in a sense, but for a different reason: it is scary that Deckard could be a replicant and that a replicant could imitate a human only because it reveals the fact that humanity itself is no longer distinguishable from machine. The fear is not that machines will learn to show emotion, but that humans have traded theirs in an unknowing gesture of accidental humanism: they’ve brought something new into the world, something beautiful, something capable of the discovery and joy of what it means to be a human. And they can conceptualize no possible use for this creature but to send it off to die and to suffer and to experience all the hell of humanity that actual humans long ago lost the ability to feel. It is not a concern that machines can appear human, but that humans appear like machines. Deckard is not inhuman because he is a replicant; he is inhuman because he can not even conceptualize that Batty may simply want to live a happy life, that he may simply be afraid, and that Deckard made him that way. Or, perhaps, that inability and lack of empathy is what makes him crushingly human. And as Blade Runner shows, the most human thing is to be inhuman to the point where the two hold no distinction or individual meaning. Batty is not a replicant of a human, for the passion and deep verve he experiences near his end is something no human in Blade Runner’s world could experience. In the end, human and replicant are not indistinguishable; replicants experience what is conventionally considered human joy and the need for survival as no human does anymore. The grand tension of Blade Runner is not that Deckard could be a replicant, for his sheer boredom indicates that he is not one. The tension is that if he were a replicant, he might even be a better person.
So a work of unparalleled thoughtfulness, huh? True at an abstract level, yes, but more luminous is what Scott achieves through sheer implication from his craft. What is most notable about Blade Runner is not its thematic depth in and of itself, but that it achieves literally every ounce of this depth from a visual and aural showpiece where-in the idea of “theme” and “character” are inextricably tied to the fundamentals of directing. The sheer amount of implication Scott crafts out of his vision of Los Angeles in 2019 is astonishing, exploring complicated moods of aimlessness, malaise, and nervous detachment through the sheer fog that vices the city. The parade of people, cluttered and challenging yet still amorphous and abrupt, moving with no definition of purpose and no communal character, defines the human spirit in this time as a party of one, every individual more surrounded by people but all the more internalized and lonely for it. Jordan Cronenweth’s hushed, malaise-blasted cinematography ought to have made him a star in the field; it didn’t, but Blade Runner is the best resume get you could possibly imagine.
And this is to say nothing of the technical details of the world; the way information is not so much dictated to us by text or dialogue but hinted through look is a marvel of ingenuity (excepting the original version, where-in a cripplingly mundane and over-exposed narration from Ford robs the character of any ambiguity and tells when it ought to show). Of particular note is the way Scott and Cronenweth manage to simultaneously dance hyper-saturated future colors around their characters and yet still convey a muted emptiness and washed-out noirish early ’80s brown-and-grey that only just hints ever so much at the corporate nature of the world we now inhabit. It is simply mesmerizing, peering in on a world at once over-run with flashy, insistent, corporate pleasures that are all entirely useless and unable to instill any sense of humanity in the characters.
Speaking of noirish, Blade Runner is a noir. Other than perhaps Blood Simple it may be the finest American film noir of the 1980s. And this is not simply true at a superficial aesthetic level, although the deeply expressionist city design suggests it is noirish all the way up to the surface. The grieving emptiness in the characters’ hearts, the way our hero operates as a soulless and intrepid mercenary for hire who then becomes emotionally confounded by the events of his day job, the air of “type” to all the characters who occupy a deeply procedural, matter-of-fact narrative that bats away emotion in its clipped-off forward-push; all are noir strongholds, and they are the basis of Blade Runner as well. It’s fitting as well; noirs were the limbo of their time, a place where humanity stripped down its most piercing, elemental worries and saw them unfurl next to each other in a playground of despair. Science fiction often serves this purpose today, when the “noir” is no longer a genre unto itself but a style and set of tools and implications that manifest in and twist films of other genres. Scott arguably started this trend, and the primacy of visual construction and commentary on human society left out to rot too long that made “noir” itself are fully present here.
Still, the best thing about Blade Runner may be the way its human actors sink into the frame, populating the location like dusted-over rocks that have been laying in wait for eternity. Ford isn’t given much of an opportunity to act, but that’s perfect for selling the tired ambiguity of his central identity and articulating a bland, noirish type who acts less because of personal concern than because he has nothing better to do. He serves less to convey human essence than to populate the frame, but that is the ideal candidate for a role that is about humans who do nothing else but populate the frame, wandering through life divested of purpose and interest.
Rutger Hauer as the replicant leader Roy Batty is the true standout though, slowly crawling through the frame with the stolid, intense presence of a Max Schreck or a Klaus Kinski, only to subtly introduce the layer of Batty as empty, cryptic hollow shell as his performance veers from expressionist to impressionist throughout the film to fit the needs of the story. In the end, when he transforms again to become truly the only openly or even vaguely human thing in the entire film, the only space of warmth in the frame, he enters the realm of time-capsule performances, easily introducing us to one of the most human and conflicted and feeling characters of the entire 1980s and doing so after having to consciously reject these tendencies for a hefty portion of the film. It is a chameleon-like performance, trading identities and transforming demeanor without ever losing the essential core of a character coming to terms with his own perceived villainy and the mortal hole into which he has been thrown and left to die. If Blade Runner is a slice of Kubrickian chill, Hauer is the necessary Tarkovsky to twist the ice and the despair on its ear ever so slightly so that it becomes something not alienating but confrontationally warm and inviting.
It’s the way he occupies the parts of the film that come before him, though, that ensure the film’s masterpiece status, most notably the world that he inhabits like a beaten-down dog thrust into the harsh, unforgiving night. That world, and what it says about ours, is why Blade Runner stands the test of time as Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, and the arguable masterpiece of the entire science fiction genre. Over thirty years later it has somehow become popular opinion that Scott is a grand stylist but a questionable storyteller. This is misguided, as very little of what he has one over the past thirty years has been meaningfully great, or even interesting, stylistically. But it says something about the merits of a film when it and almost only it is the singular basis for a claim that a director is a stylist. If one film is responsible for such a misguided claim, it couldn’t be a better one than Blade Runner, one of the most perfectly directed films of the modern era.