Review by Logan
The science fiction classic Blade Runner is known most immediately for arguably being sci-fi director Ridley Scott’s best film, as well as yet another classic role by Harrison Ford. On the surface, it’s an action movie, albeit with a stunning visual niche, a very particular vision by a very particular director. All of that is true, but there’s something deeper to the film as well. Something that has garnered praise for the film’s thematic elements that would rival even The Matrix in complexity.
To put it simply, Blade Runner envisions a future wherein androids have been created for slave labor, but are now illegal on Earth, and cops called blade runners hunt them down. Four such androids make it to Earth and Deckard, the best blade runner in town, is commissioned with “retiring” them.
While it starts out a bit slow, the film can be enjoyed simply as an action film, which is what it’s billed as. As the story progresses, however, it slowly becomes a character sketch of these Nexus 6 androids, along with subtle character development with Deckard, who is forced to confront the morality of the androids’ treatment. He meets an android who believes she is human, which causes a bit of a conflict. He’s forced to ask what it is that makes us human, which at its heart is really what the movie is asking.
The androids were created specialized for slave labor. They look human and, to a certain extent, act human, but they only live for four years. “The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long,” one character says in the film. And that seems to be what they believe the androids to be: mere instruments, of no more value than a light bulb. When Harrison Ford was first asked about the film before it debuted in 1982, he said it was “a film about whether or not you can have a meaningful relationship with your toaster.”
So what is it that makes these androids less valuable? It’s not necessarily intelligence, as some of the androids (though not all) match or even exceed their creators in intelligence. The next step is often to compare the emotional capacity of androids to humans. There is a difference here although it’s in the reverse direction – the replicants are more empathetic than humans. In fact, the very test used to distinguish humans from replicants asks questions about a series of moral dilemmas, designed to elicit an emotional response. So if it’s not that they’re less intelligent or less emotional, what is it? The answer to that is as simple as this: because it was created by us.
Numerous religious allusions are at play throughout the film. Batty, the leader of the replicants, refers to find the man who designed them as “meeting my maker.” Other religious allusions come into play such as being “let into Heaven” and a reference to the “prodigal son.” Perhaps the biggest allusion of all though, and the biggest hint as to the film’s eventual message, is found when Batty refers to his designer as “the god of biomechanics.” In an age of technological and bioengineering advancement, mankind has spawned its own god, and with that, its own creations.
At first glance, this appears to be a particularly scary brand of humanism, casting God aside and saying we have no need of him. Where this film falls, however, is in sharp criticism of how the “god of biomechanics” runs things. In fact, at an especially climactic point in the film, I found myself saying of this character “Batty isn’t the villain of the film; this guy is.”
Deckard slowly (and admittedly, implicitly) comes to the same realization, coming into conflict with the set of values he’s been given. After all, he’s something like the Angel of Death to the god of biomechanics, but what happens when you can’t stomach your god’s instructions? Earlier versions of the film that contain Deckard’s voiceover (which were removed in the Director’s Cut I watched) contained the line “The report read “Routine retirement of a replicant.” That didn’t make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back.” Even in later versions of the film that omit the voiceover, you can see Deckard’s conflict, especially as the replicants emphasize how they must live in fear, which becomes another thematic element of the film, and a phrase that’s repeated throughout.
Some of the most powerful moments of the film, which include the film’s somewhat unexpected ending, can’t be shared without giving massive spoilers. There are numerous elements in this film that continually challenge the traditional view that androids are simply machines, and challenge the ethics of the “god of biomechanics.” But this I can say about the film: if we are to gain anything from Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, it’s that human beings make really lousy gods. The end result is not humanism, but a call for ethical and moral reform.
And as all dystopian stories do, it includes with it a caution for the advances of the present. At the conclusion of the film, I was left with several questions about the ethics of biological advancement. What does this have to say about advances made at the expense of life? Would this have an implication for fetal stem cell research? Human cloning? Artificial intelligence? Are all of these questions intended by Scott, or are they simply implicit in the topic? All of these questions are signs of the movie’s impact, of just how deep an action movie can go.
The true beauty of the movie is that unlike certain films who lose impact and relevance with time, Blade Runner will only become more relevant as we continue to make scientific advancements, and questions of biomechanic ethics need to be raised. From a criticism of humanism to bioethics to an admission of mortality, Blade Runner is a film with enough depth to sustain three or four watches, still offering something new to be gleaned.
Blade Runner is Rated R for violence and brief nudity