A Tunnel in the Sky

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Blade Runner

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 6, 2001, with later edits

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If you aren't aware, this movie is based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I will dispense with a few comments regarding the screenplay adaptation first, then devote the rest of this article to an analysis of the film itself. This is one review in which I can't avoid spoilers, the reason for which will become apparent later. Even for anyone who has not seen the film I do not think they will ruin the total impact. I hope I don't alienate avid fans of PKD (of which I am one), but it is my opinion that the film is a better-told tale than the book. Dick has to be regarded as the premiere idea-man in all of SF, but unfortunately there were times when his prose style was weak. There are many elements of the novel that I feel he did not develop sufficiently, from the quasi-religious rituals of Mercerism (which I don't think would have worked at all in the film) to the personal motivations of the principal characters.

One aspect of the book that strikes me as questionable is the ease with which the bounty hunter Deckard is able to dispense with the androids. In the film the androids are called replicants, and their physical and mental abilities present more of a challenge to Deckard, the blade runner. No attempt is made in the film to justify the substitution of that term for bounty hunter, but the producers did acknowledge the permission of Alan E. Nourse (from his novel The Bladerunner) and William S. Burroughs (who adapted that novel into the play Blade Runner - A Movie) for its use, although neither has any other connection with Ridley Scott's film or Dick's novel. Perhaps this was done to avoid any confusion over the actual meaning of the book's title.

In the novel, following a devastating nuclear war which has left Earth enshrouded in a perpetual cloud of radioactive dust, the few species of animals not already extinct are endangered. A person's social status is determined by whether they are able to afford a real animal as a pet or if they have to settle for a mechanical replica. I have always interpreted the title of the novel as an inquiry into whether an android is an accurate enough duplication of a human as to have emotions and concerns for the social hierarchy and the plight of the lower animals. Both the book and the film touch on this subject to differing degrees, with the film acknowledging that the majority of the animals are replicas and the book putting more emphasis on the importance of owning real animals. In this regard I feel the film is more logical, since if the majority of animal species were endangered they would more than likely be protected by government controls and personal ownership would be prohibited. Personal ownership of animal replicants, however, would be a symbolic way for people to acknowledge both humanity's interconnectivity to all nature as well as humanity's responsibility for the animals' demise.

Blade Runner is my second-favorite SF film, following 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both exhibit a brilliant visual sense, and although they depict distinctly differing views, I think they are both realistic visions of possible futures. It is my opinion that all of the elements of this film work, from the production designs of Syd Mead (credited as Visual Futurist), to the special photographic effects supervised by Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich, and David Dryer, to the electronic score from Vangelis. Combining both the drearier aspects of modern-day Los Angeles with futuristic projections such as flying cars and genetically designed duplications of animal and humanoid lifeforms (both of these technologies are being seriously discussed today) renders Blade Runner into a unique artistic triumph. At the same time it projects its futuristic scenario, it also exhibits elements reminiscent of the film noir of the 1940's. Director of Photography Jordan Cronenweth's masterful use of light and shadow, the smoke and dust-filled interiors, and the oppressive gloom of cloud and rain, all combine to enclose the characters in an inextricable trap of their own design.

The majority of genre films suffer from the fact they are merely action-oriented stories set within an SF milieu. While it could be argued that such is the case with Blade Runner as well, I feel there is sufficient originality in the plot to satisfy the stubbornest SF book fan, even if they feel it is not a good adaptation of the novel. Although there is no specific mention of a preceding war, all of the action takes place either at night or in scenes that would indicate a perpetual cloud cover. Some of this might be the result of industrial pollution, which is witnessed in one of the early scenes of the Los Angeles skyline. Set in 2019 (two years earlier than in the book), the population of the city, clustered together in the older downtown sections, has dwindled in size and primarily includes those who are not gifted or talented enough to qualify for off-world migration. As was the case with the robots of Asimov's stories, use of replicant laborers is restricted from Earth, with special police squads - blade runner units - whose sole assignment is the detection and elimination (referred to as retirement in both book and film) of renegade replicants.

The film opens with a panoramic view of the city, with flying cars criss-crossing the skyline as the camera dollies forward and the scene dissolves to pyramid-shaped buildings which are obviously removed from the previously witnessed industrial section. As the camera continues its forward glide we can see a man pacing inside an office underneath slowly rotating ceiling fans. He is Holden (Morgan Paull), L. A.'s leading blade runner detective, and he has come to the Tyrell Corporation (the manufacturer of the replicants) in search of clues to the whereabouts of a group of renegade Nexus-6 androids who have escaped from their off-world masters and piloted a stolen spacecraft back to Earth. Since the replicants are human in outward appearance, a test, similar to a polygraph and known as the Voigt-Kampf Empathy Profile, has been devised to gauge involuntary reaction to certain stimuli. A noticeable lack of emotional response to questions dealing with the possibility of imminent harm or death coming to animals has in the past been a reliable barometer for a blade runner to decide whether his subject is human or replicant, and thus subject to retirement. The Tyrell Corporation's objective has been to improve each successive generation's design so as to make their creations indistinguishable from humans. Holden's initial interviewee is Leon (Brion James), a new hire at the corporation who matches the description of one of the escaped replicants. Leon realizes what the test entails, and fearing his detection he shoots Holden before the blade runner can react to the discovery. This scene may figure into a sub-theme about which critics and fans have speculated in recent years, so I will return to it later in this article.

Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, another blade runner who is summoned by Gaff (Olmos) for a meeting with the chief of the blade runner unit, Bryant (Walsh). It is implied that Deckard is a former member of this unit but there is no indication of what his current occupation is. From the luxuriousness of his apartment it would seem that either the bounties he received for his retirements were considerable, or else he may be engaged in private detective work. Although Deckard seems at first reluctant to take on the assignment, Bryant is able to talk him into it, which is possibly another clue towards unraveling the proposed sub-theme. Bryant informs him of Holden's failure, gives him profiles of the replicants at large, who are led by Roy Batty (Hauer), and assigns him to interview a Nexus-6 prototype in residence at the Tyrell Corporation. Arriving there, he is greeted by Rachel Tyrell (Young), who introduces herself as the daughter of the firm's founder. He is persuaded by Mr. Tyrell (Turkel) to interview her first in order to provide a negative response to the profile before testing a replicant. The process is a long and arduous one for both, with the number of questions approaching a hundred before Deckard is convinced he has been interviewing a replicant. Rachel is dismissed, and Tyrell expresses his satisfaction that his latest creation was so difficult to detect. When Deckard inquires as to how she could not know what she is, he is informed of her memory implants which previous generations of replicants had lacked (remember this for later too).

Deckard's search for the remaining replicants is intertwined with his reaction to the discovery that Rachel is a replicant herself. It becomes apparent shortly thereafter that he is strongly attracted to her, and yet his previous indoctrination against replicants presents him with strong emotional conflicts. Rachel arrives at his apartment, anxious to discover what Tyrell had told him about her. At first he tries to convince her of the truth about the memory implants, supposedly derived from Tyrell's niece, then later recants and attempts to tell her it was all a bad joke, that she is really human. He is not successful in convincing her and she quickly leaves, noticeably upset by the revelation. Later, as he is conducting surveillance on another of the suspected renegades, Deckard phones Rachel and invites her to join him at a nightclub, but she refuses. He confronts Zhora (Cassidy), an exotic dancer at the club, who panics, assaults him and flees the club. He is able to recover and pursue her, and guns her down on the crowded streets. It is quite apparent in this scene that Deckard is both physically and emotionally shaken by this encounter. It is as if he is weary of his job, reluctant to continue. One can speculate he is thinking it could just as easily be Rachel lying in a bloody heap on the sidewalk.

He is confronted by Bryant, who informs him that now there are four more replicants for him to retire. When Deckard argues there are only three remaining Bryant counters with the news that Rachel has disappeard from the Tyrell Corporation and is now considered to be a renegade and a candidate for retirement. As Bryant departs, Deckard spies Rachel in the teeming crowd, but before he is able to overtake her he is assaulted by Leon, who has witnessed the killing of his colleague. Physically superior to Deckard, Leon is close to killing him before Rachel returns, retrieves Deckard's gun, and kills Leon. Now there are only three remaining, that is if he can summon the will to retire Rachel. He is again emotionally torn. Why would Rachel side with him and not her fellow replicants? And if the replicants desire life so much, perhaps they are closer to being human and thus deserve what little life they can obtain on their own.

Deckard and Rachel return to his apartment, where he is unable to refrain from declaring his attraction to her. They make love, then he leaves her there and goes out to confront the two remaining renegades. Batty and Pris Stratton (Hannah) have made contact with one of Tyrell's genetic design engineers, J. F. Sebastian (Sanderson), in an attempt to infiltrate the company and demand information necessary to reverse their pre-planned limited lifespan. Sebastian takes Batty to Tyrell's apartment, where Tyrell informs Batty that his condition is irreversible, that several attempts had been made to alter the process to no avail. Batty kills Tyrell and Sebastian as well. When Deckard receives the report about the discovery of Sebastian's body, he goes to the apartment where Pris awaits the return of her replicant lover. Pris, like Leon, is stronger than Deckard, and again he comes close to losing his life at the hands of a replicant, but is able to recover and shoot her. Now he must avoid the pursuit of Batty, the strongest and most cunning of the renegade group. He is able to break through a window and climb to the roof of the building. He attempts a leap across the gap to an adjacent building, just barely able to retain a precarious hold on the edge, dangling high overhead the street below. As he loses his grip Batty is miraculously able to snare him and lift him to the safety of the roof. Again Deckard is puzzled as to the motivations of the replicants. Why was he saved? Do the replicants actually have as much, if not more, regard for life than a human? If such is the case, do they not deserve life as much as a human? Deckard watches quietly as Batty slowly dies, his pre-programmed lifespan at an end. Deckard slowly comes to realize that Gaff is also on the rooftop and has witnessed this scene, and as the other policeman walks away he calls out over his shoulder, "Too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?"

Puzzled, Deckard returns to his apartment to find the door mysteriously ajar. Fearful that Gaff or another blade runner has discovered and retired Rachel, he slowly enters, his gun at the ready. He is relieved to find her still alive, asleep just as he had left her. He quickly gathers up a few posessions and awakens her, anxious to leave before her prescence is discovered. Entering the elevator, Deckard's eye is drawn to an object on the hallway floor. It is an origami figure of a unicorn, much like the others we have seen earlier in the film created by Gaff. Deckard realizes Gaff has been there, but is allowing them to make their escape. Perhaps he too has come to the realization that all life is sacred, whether human, animal or replicant. With Gaff's final words echoing in his mind, Deckard enters the elevator and prepares to begin his new life with Rachel, however long that may be.

Blade Runner was originally released in 1982 to mixed reviews. Most critics said it was too confusing, with character motivation that was highly suspect. Fans of the book complained that too many elements of the story were left out. Both agreed the voice-over narration by Ford was reduntant, unneccessary, and contributed nothing to the overall telling of the story. Ford has since reported that he recorded the narration reluctantly, and felt that if he did the job badly enough it would not be used. He forgot that you can never underestimate the stupidity of movie executives, who think the audience has to have everything spelled out for them. Ridley Scott did not like the narration either, and it surprises me he allowed it considering he was a co-producer. In any case, a "Director's Cut" of the film was finally made available in 1991 which eliminated the narration and added a short dream sequence which immediately sparked speculation about a possible implication that Deckard himself might be a replicant. There is a scene in the novel where Deckard is confronted with another bounty hunter with whom he is not familiar, who takes him into custody and escorts him to a police station created and operated by androids. They try to convince Deckard he may be an android without being aware of the fact, but it is made clear by Dick that such is not the case. It is the other bounty hunter (who is not aware of it) and his superior who are the androids. Deckard is able to retire the leader and convince the other to escort him out of the building.

In recent interviews Ridley Scott has alluded to the fact that, yes, Deckard was a replicant, and he intentionally included hints to that effect throughout the film. Harrison Ford, on the other hand, claims there was no indication to him in the script or in any discussions with Scott that this was the case. I don't think it really matters either way in order for the viewer to appreciate the brilliance of this film, however I do have a few ideas of my own as to whether or not it is true. Going back to that first scene I mentioned, with Holden's interview with Leon, gives us the first possible clue. When I first saw the film in the theatre I had initially thought that it was Harrison Ford in this scene rather than Morgan Paull as Holden. Paull bears an uncanny resemblance to Ford, and I think this may have been intentional. Now it can be speculated that both Holden and Deckard are replicants, possibly from the same generation. After all, who better to detect a replicant than another replicant, whose abilities, both mental and physical, would be beyond that of a human.

The second clue to examine concerns Rachel's memory implants. When she goes to Deckard's apartment the first time she shows him a photo of her and her mother, but Deckard tells her that the photo is actually Tyrell's neice, whose memories have been given to her. What about all the photos Deckard has on his piano? Are they just part of some false memories given to him? And what about the piano itself? Certainly a blade runner is not likely to have had the time or the inclination to learn to play a musical instrument. Even if it was something he had inherited from his parents he might likely have sold it since a policeman's salary is typically low. And yet he has a rather nice apartment which would indicate a considerable income. But it has already been established he is no longer a regular member of the police unit, but rather is requested to come back for this assignment. The photo analysis machine he has would also be a rather expensive item for a policeman to be able to afford. If he is a replicant, then all of these things have been provided just to create the right atmosphere in which he can do the job for which he has been programmed.

His attraction to Rachel, even after his realization that she is not human is another possible clue. Humans, especially blade runners, would have a very negative opinion of replicants and would not usually consider socializing with them. Bryant uses the negative euphemism of "skin job" to refer to them, and in the narrated version of the film Deckard says this is equivalent to a racial slur. Not only is Deckard attracted to her, he acts on this attraction and begins a physical relationship with her. Perhaps this is his replicant nature coming through, his identification with her and her kind. And what about Deckard's own physical prowess? Considering the beatings he receives from both Leon and Roy Batty, it would seem to indicate he is stronger and has more stamina and endurance than would have been expected. He is able to stand up to Batty and make it to the roof, making the perilous climb and then leap to hold onto the stone parapet with only one hand (the other with several broken fingers). Of course this could be just the adrenaline drive of a frightened man, but taken with the other clues it is something to consider.

The previously mentioned dream sequence that was added to the Director's Cut is a puzzling one, and I am not sure if it is really a clue worth considering. Deckard has fallen asleep at the piano, and he dreams of a galloping unicorn. Does this have any meaning at all, and if so what? And was this scene actually filmed for Blade Runner, or is it a scene from a later (1985) fantasy film from Scott, Legend? A unicorn is of course a mythical beast, not one that has ever existed in real life. Why would a replicant dream of a unicorn? What would be the significance of the dream if Deckard is really human after all? I am not sure, and I don't have any idea what connection this dream might have with the unicorn figure that Gaff creates and places by Deckard's door. The only conclusion that I can come to is that Gaff may be a replicant too, and the unicorn dream is something that is common for replicants to experience. Who knows?

As I mentioned earlier, it was necessary to talk about much of the plot in order to discuss this speculated aspect of the story. I apologize if this has spoiled the film for anyone who has not already seen it, but then again maybe it has just sparked even more of an interest. As with any great film, Blade Runner can be viewed many times with different aspects of the tale being noticed each time. If you have already seen it, I would hope what I have said would make you want to see it again. Regardless of whether or not Deckard is a replicant has no effect on the fact that this is a landmark film of style and complexity, one of the best examples of the SF genre ever to hit the screen.


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Ridley Scott

Hampton Fancher
David Peoples

June 25, 1982

Harrison Ford
Rutger Hauer
Sean Young
Edward James Olmos
M. Emmet Walsh
Daryl Hannah
William Sanderson
Brion James
Joe Turkel
Joanna Cassidy

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.