This month’s film is the third out of the nine films discussed in this series that happens to have been released in exactly five different editions. You’ll recall, this was also true of last month’s movie “Brazil.” The other film that shares this distinction is the ancestor of them all, Fritz Lange’s “Metropolis” (1927).
Why so many versions? Did the previous cuts ring too false or too true? Is a motion picture as mutable as a melody on which infinite variations can be tried? Or is everything in the man made universe going to be treated like an App, from now on, subjected to continual revision? This question becomes a theme in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982).
One marvelous function of art is its ability to employ ambiguity to trigger controversy and stimulate vital discourse. The multiple editions of these movies represent an extravagant debate. Motion pictures take months to edit and finish. Likewise, they are extremely cumbersome, time consuming and expensive to pull apart and put back together. What’s at stake must be very important to go to all that trouble. For a movie to have been subjected to so much surgery means that it struck a cultural nerve. The filmmaker is to be applauded. Stories, and particularly science fiction stories are probes into our future. They lead us into deeper, more meaningful examinations of the consequences of our past actions and our role in shaping the future.
I have not read the novel by Philip K. Dick that was the starting point for the “Blade Runner” script. Thematically, it’s easy to take it for a premonition about class warfare. With dialog like, “if you aint cop your just little people,” this director is as keen on the subject as Terry Gilliam was in “Brazil,” where we watched the stuggle of a man against the bureaucratic machine. In “Blade Runner” the machines revolt against man. Can they really do that? Have they accomplished it already? This puzzle pops up consistently throughout all nine motion pictures reviewed in this series so far.
The way into that conundrum in “Blade Runner” is to depict the machine as man’s jealous twin. You can replace Deckard vs. Replicant with Democrat vs. Republican or Cain vs. Able. It’s all the same story. We’re talking about different sides of human nature that are polarized from the start, but from that schism springs the interracial love story in Mr. Scott’s riddle’s heart.
“West Side Story” was good with that subject too. Of equal interest to me is how this runner suggests that sooner or later our physical bodies will become technologically enhanced to the point we can live on indefinitely. It won’t be long and our original DNA will become something indistinguishable from manufactured robes and rods of miraculous stem-cell fiber grafted into our mainframe and programmed to prolong our feast here.
My grandmother, who died decades ago, wore the first generation of life extension technology under her skin. She would have probably been tossed in the bone heap in her thirties, like her own mom, were it not for all the fancy hardware she’d had hot-wired in. She had a mechanical fingers, wrist, hips and knees. Medical mechanics kept her mobile, in the 1960s and 70s, by replacing malformed bones and gristle, with plates, screws, hinges and pins. You could see the zippers all over her skin where they went in.
After a continuous string of more than thirty major operations, a sizable sum of her was man made. Count me as one who regarded that kind of technology as a godsend.
Consider all the scientific leaps that have taken place since then and take them to their logical conclusion. Somebody’s bound to aim for technologically assisted immortality. If such a thing’s possible, aren’t we bound to try and produce it artificially? How soon before we all essentially become Replicants and who will decide how long we live?
As we drop down to examine Blade Runner’s finely honed edge, the first thing we notice is the look of the future world Rick Deckard lives in. Almost every filmmaker in this series seems to have incorporated some of Fritz Lange’s visual design in “Metropolis” into their own futuristic landscape. If you haven’t already watched the documentary “Voyage to Metropolis” inside “The Complete Metropolis” edition from Kino International. There you will be treated to comparisons of sets in “Metropolis” and “Blade Runner” side-by-side for your convenience.
While we’re scanning the scenery in “Blade Runner,” notice what is still circulating in popular culture after thirty years. How accurate was “Blade Runner” in predicting our present? In a hyper-vertical city center, a geisha girl can be seen on a digital billboard popping a pill and smiling serenely. So, the target demographic is Asian, the population is on mood drugs, which are advertised in the mass media. Check. Mass communication is accomplished on massive screens, check. Petroleum is being refined big time, check. Budweiser and Cuisinart show up on signs, check. Hari Krishnas still chant their lines. Also Hilton and Bulova have traversed the times. Check, check. Not bad, but we did underachieve in a major line of innovation that this storyteller predicted. Transport on Deckard’s beat has lifted off the ground. In this reality, the information highway has made the hovercraft less of a priority. Deckard’s riding a highway in the sky but take away that and he looks like he’s stuck in Shanghai.
Now let us commence, as “Blade Runner” does, by discovering what a replicant is. According to the interrogator, across the desk from the first replicant we ever meet, a turtle and a tortoise are the “same thing”. “Blade Runner” unfolds by asking, what if the difference between machines and humans was no greater than that between turtle and tortoise? The tortoise is a perfect metaphor for a replicant, by the way, because a replicant is simply a shell inside of which resides human nature.
The interrogator scrutinizes the reaction of the replicant after telling him a tortoise is lying helpless on its back. The replicant in “Blade Runner” identifies with the helpless creature because he’s in a similar pinch. The manufacturers feared that the longer the replicants lived, the more attached to being alive they’d become, so replicants are programmed to shut down after four years.
If they live long enough, they develop emotions like hate, anger, fear and envy and then they can’t coexist peacefully with humans. This reasoning is presented as common sense to us the audience. Let’s zoom in on that assumption. The thing we are afraid of in “Blade Runner” is a machine that expresses hate, anger, fear and envy. What? You mean like guns? Nobody questions such a machine’s obsolescence when it’s called a replicant. Deckard is our hero. Everyone in the audience is cheering for him–even die-hard gun owners. Everyone in the audience knows that machines are very dangerous when they are used for hate, anger, fear, etc. Those machines he’s chasing down and eliminating are very scary and ought not to be allowed to run loose in our society. One could argue that Deckard needs a gun to do his job, but that’s not a pistol in his belt. Deckard’s weapon is for retiring dangerous machines.
As with automobiles, new editions of brand name replicant designs are constantly being rolled out and old ones need to be retired. Sean Young plays Rachel, the replicant calendar babe, a gleaming piece of R&D that would scoop any man’s fantasy for kink on the techie frontier. She’s convinced she’s human. Tycoon genius Eldon Tyrell says he’s giving Rachel memories that will expand her ability to handle emotions more comfortably.
The identity crisis of Rachel’s character after Deckard reveals her true nature to her would be hard to imagine in real life. It would be like any one of us being told at age 21 that we were fake. The predicament is not unlike the unfortunate Harry Buttle’s, in act one of “Brazil”, who has another person’s identity accidentally grafted on to his and his life slides downhill. There’s no way to imagine the shock when your memories suddenly supply zero context for your life, but they’re still there and they never go away. What would that feel like to find out your entire past is nothing but an App and not only that, so is your response to it? This is the twisty, mind-bendy spell of Ridley Scott’s epic cop flick.
To be continued…