In Ridley Scott’s 1982 science-fiction film Blade Runner, the detailed world that provides the film with its setting is created and filmed in a unique and interesting way. The setting is Los Angeles in the far-flung future of 2019, where corporations rule the world and synthetic humans called replicants have been outlawed. The film follows bounty hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) as he is ordered to hunt down several replicants who have escaped to Earth. The care taken in the creation of the world of Blade Runner, in combination with the abstract, breathtaking story, creates a visual and cultural futurist’s painting of a realistic dystopia as yet unseen in science fiction. This is intermixed with deep themes of identity and man’s interaction with technology to create a meaningful and interesting masterpiece of speculative fiction. In this paper, we will analyze the plot, the characters, some production elements of the film, and how they work to tell this story of robots and humanity in the way that Ridley Scott envisioned.
The point of attack for Blade Runner is the initial scene with Leon and Holden, another Blade Runner. Here, the film establishes that a) the world is a dystopian future, b) there are robotic slaves called 'replicants' that are kept under strict control, and c) some of them have escaped to Earth and are very dangerous. Leon, in the process of his discovery, kills Holden and escapes, necessitating the recruitment of Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to the mission of tracking down Leon and the other escaped replicants in order to 'retire' (kill) them.
The collision point of the film happens when Deckard meets Rachael (Sean Young), the daughter of Tyrell, and they have their first conversation over a Voight-Kampff test. Here, Deckard starts to notice his attraction to her, and formally begins his investigation of the replicants; furthermore, he finds out that she is a replicant and does not know it, thus making Deckard start to question the humanity of the replicants as a whole.
The midpoint of the film occurs after Deckard successfully tracks down Zhora in a strip club, chases her down and successfully kills her. At this point, Deckard has finally tracked down and killed one of them, though the inhuman way in which she is dispatched lends the scene (and Deckard's predicament) a sense of pathos. This is where he starts to grasp the desperation and sympathetic nature of the replicants. He is threatened and almost killed by a vengeful Leon, but Rachael shows up and kills Leon with Deckard's gun, thus inexorably binding them for the rest of the narrative.
The true culmination in the film comes not for Deckard, but for Roy Batty, who at this point has successfully manipulated J.F. Sebastian into arranging a meeting with Tyrell, the man who created him. It is here that Tyrell reveals that he absolutely cannot grant Batty or Pris more life; frustrated by this, and vengeful against his 'father/fucker,' Batty tears out Tyrell's eyes and kills him. This finally answers Batty's question, thus accomplishing his mission; he simply does not get the result he wanted. This sets up the conflict for the rest of the film; Batty is dangerous and must be stopped, and he is made more dangerous by the fact that he knows he will die soon.
The resolution to the film comes at the end of Deckard's and Batty's battle through the Sebastian's apartment building; eventually using up the remainder of his life, Batty chooses to spare Deckard by pulling him up onto the roof. Here, he gives his incredible speech about all the amazing things he has seen - "attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams flitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate" and then laments that "all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain." Here, it is not that Deckard has defeated Batty, but that Batty has finally resigned himself to his death; Deckard's victory through charity clearly shakes him, to the point where he takes Rachael out of hiding and follow Batty's example to live life as much as he can.
The life dreams of both main characters (Deckard and Batty) are quite interesting in their similarity. Batty, like Deckard and all other humans, wish to have more life, and to have a better life than they have. Deckard is a somewhat directionless figure at the beginning of the film, the typical noir hero who cares for little and lives below his means. However, he finds a new direction with his love for Rachael. Roy Batty is an idealist and a revolutionary, having a grand life dream from the start of gaining freedom and more life. He comes to Earth with his friends to track down his creator in order to get more life, as he is genetically engineered to have a short lifespan.
The primary tension in the film is between Deckard and Batty; their life dreams are both in conflict - Deckard's job (which he is coerced into doing by Bryant) is to hunt down and kill replicants, while Batty's life goal is to get more life for himself and his fellow replicants. Batty's methods are extreme and cruel, and so Deckard feels the need to stop him, despite the fact that Batty's desires are innocent and understandable. As it stands, the conflict then exists between life and death is something shared by all the characters, though they must fight each other for it. We see tension in many different places throughout the film: the replicant's search for more life, Sebastian's desperation for friends, Deckard's budding romance with Rachael, and his search for the replicants. The audience's hopes and fears constantly fluctuate; most of the characters on both sides of the conflict are sympathetic. At first, we side with Deckard, as we have seen the terrifying devastation replicants can wreak (with Holden's death). However, as we get to learn more about Rachael, Roy and the other replicants, we learn that their goals are the same as ours, and they are a put-upon social class that one must either forget to be or not know they are to overcome. Though we fear for characters like Deckard and Sebastian when replicants attack them, the rest of the time this conflict feels like something begrudgingly carried out by Deckard as an agent of the establishment.
The nuanced performances of the actors in Blade Runner provide an interesting contrast between the human and replicant characters, and express the characters’ feelings and opinions of the dusky, rainy world of the future. Ford’s Deckard, the protagonist, is ever blank, monotone and full of self-loathing, taking from many archetypes of film noir detectives. Throughout the film, Ford carries the weight of the world on his shoulders as Deckard, a divorced loner who is no longer a cop, but a bounty hunter who tracks down replicants. He has no family, no friends, and no connections to other people due to the overcongested and destitute world of the future. In the opening voiceover, Deckard relays that his ex-wife referred to him as “sushicold fish.” As being a ‘cold fish’ is analogous with being distant and unfeeling, the audience gets this indication of Deckard’s disconnect from the outside world (Reagle, 1995).
The replicants, on the other hand, while also having their serious moments, possess more collective spark and life than the human characters. The leader of the replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), displays incredible passion and emotion, as well as malice in his dealings with the other characters. Pris (Daryl Hannah), the most unpredictable and hedonistic character, is a replicant. In fact, the most emotionless replicant found in the film is Rachael (Sean Young), who believes she is human. This stylized difference in performances help to convey the lifeless, cynical world Scott and crew are attempting to create, and the loss of hope and optimism the human characters have.
The musical score, by composer Vangelis, is completely synthesized, permeating the film throughout purely as a mood-setter. The music is always low-tempo and consists of long series of tones being played, with melodies that convey mystery, drifting, and discovery, all things that Deckard experiences throughout the course of the film. However, the synthesized nature of the notes always makes the music sound alien and futuristic, but in a nuanced, jazz-like way. The only music by actual instruments is heard in one scene in Deckard’s home, where Rachael plays a few notes on the piano. This is meant to display her desperation to hold on to some semblance of humanity, particularly as she had killed the replicant Leon to save Deckard’s life in the previous scene.
Blade Runner, like many science fiction films, presents a measure of escapism, as you are drawn into the detailed fictional world of futuristic Los Angeles. You are meant to be drawn completely into this other world, which is why so much care and attention to detail was taken in the production design. Oddly enough, it is the touch of realism in the production design and worldbuilding that allows an audience to invest more of their attention in the film – much of the city and technology feel like natural progressions from everyday modern technology.
In the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, Deckard provides narration to several points in the film, though they are purely to convey exposition of the main concepts the audience is expected to understand (Deckard’s thoughts and feelings, the definition of replicants, etc.) In subsequent cuts, this narration was removed, as it was inserted at the time at the insistence of the studio, who wanted the nuances of the story explained to the audience. Therefore, the narration could be considered an unnecessary part of the film, since the same points Deckard raises are conveyed (though more subtly) by the direction and performances of the characters.
The issues raised in the film are almost purely societal and metaphysical, including the nature of identity, and the search for purpose in life (as portrayed by Roy’s eventful, but short span, and his quest for more time), tying in with the assertion that “movies have something to say often beyond their literal meaning” (Goodykoontz, Section 9.1). However, there is also an element of criticism toward corporations and capitalist society present in the film, evidenced by the rampant, domineering corporate advertisements and billboards that dominate the sky and the street. It is implied that the corporate culture rules everything, and that is what has led to the dystopian future presented in the film, as well as the persecution of the replicants, who were only created to be slaves, despite being fully realized, sentient beings.
Blade Runner is, first and foremost, a science fiction film. Though there are elements of an action-adventure film, its style most closely resembles film noir, as it features a world-weary detective character, a pervasive feeling of dread or despair, and use of low lighting with plenty of shadow. Science fiction tends to explore the human condition and social issues through fantastical elements that make the conversation more palatable to an audience. The science fiction elements are central to the story, as it uses the concept of artificial beings who look just like humans to explore the nature of what it means to be human in the first place. Deckard’s and Rachael’s questions and doubts of their humanity are reflected by the desire for survival presented by the replicants.
Throughout this destitute slum of a city, bright neon signs and floating video screens dominate the landscape (some even taking up the sides of entire skyscrapers). Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth uses low-key lighting in the majority of the shots, as the world is presented in a perpetual state of darkness. Film noir-style use of light and shadow helps to bring about the feeling of destitution and dystopia this future world presents – light often comes in through tight, focused beams through blinds, or as harsh overhead neon lights of the rampant advertisements in the city streets. Shots are often framed quite wide, seeing a great deal of the character’s body, as if to further cement our distance from the characters. However, during deep moments, such as the many moments of contemplation Deckard experiences, and Roy’s final monologue to him after their fight, extreme close-ups are used to bring the audience closer to the characters.
The editing of Blade Runner by Marsha Nakashima is slow and contemplative, leading to a slow pace and a relatively long length of shot. The opening shot of the movie fades slowly into an extremely lengthy establishing shot of the Los Angeles cityscape, lingering over it for nearly half a minute. This establishes the intentionally glacial pace of the rest of the film; each shot is given time to breathe, and scenes are often edited with as few cuts as possible, if any. Throughout the film, coverage is used sparingly, as each shot is artistically chosen, the editing reflecting the painterly style of the shots. There are few fades, and what few fades occur are important for establishing of the mood, such as the aforementioned opening shot.
The use of the varying elements of narrative, character and film production in the movie Blade Runner all coalesce to create a unique, interesting and lyrical film that speaks to human issues of identity and the frailty of life. The mise-en-scene, the sound, music and editing all coalesce to form an organic, living world for the characters to inhabit, and for the audience to believe could potentially happen in the future. The movie itself becomes more about this world than the primary plot, as Deckard and the replicants attempt to find their own sense of self and identity in a world that has been overrun with pollution, corporate oversight, and black market dealings. Ridley Scott sought to tell a very presentational story that would be conveyed through mood and atmosphere, and in this instance he succeeded with aplomb.