The replicants that Deckard must destroy are ‘intensified people’, in crucial ways more human than the dull creatures of mere flesh and blood who inhabit the Los Angeles of 2019. The brevity of the androids’ (four-year) life span gives them an urgency and pathos that is missing from the mundane lives of ordinary humanity. This vulnerability is quickly established with the first replicant, Leon (Brion James), constructed as no more than a brutal, low-grade operative, but he is also in search of the mother and childhood that he never experienced, as if he feels the lack of the humanity denied him through his manufacture. Roy Batty, the Blake-quoting ‘Combat model’ machine, has an admirable and insatiable desire for, precisely, ‘more life’. Rutger Hauer, playing Roy, very acutely acted a kind of childish innocence through his role, which he described as ‘this four-year-old thing’ (Sammon 1996: 131).
Film theory has long recognised that female roles in cinema are constructed in significantly different ways to their male counterparts. Zhora, Pris and Rachael (Joanna Cassidy, Daryl Hannah, Sean Young), the three female-type soft machines, as ‘intensified women’, are supremely self-possessed and athletic, and in Rachael’s case, a certain notion of femininity engineered to the extreme. Deckard’s relation to the three replicant females becomes increasingly tortured as he destroys the first two and finally falls in love with the third. The manufactured perfection of these synthetic creatures seems even more thinkable now than it was in the early 1980s, given the startling twenty-first-century developments in genetic manipulation and gamete therapy.
It is entirely appropriate that there have been no less than five different theatrical, video and laser-disc releases of Blade Runner, all contributing to the endless play of ‘undecidable’ readings and response to this film text (Bukataman 1997: 82). The most widely circulated versions are the initial 1982 ‘International Cut’ (117 minutes), and the 1992 ‘Director’s Cut’ (116 minutes), which was, in truth, yet another compromise between Scott and the studio, Warner. The two versions differ in ways that serve to cast doubt on the status of the central character (Scott 2005: 55): Is it possible that Rick Deckard is also replicant? The first version was accompanied by a dominating voice-over, narrated by Harrison Ford’s Deckard, in part a tribute to the jaundiced interior commentaries of 1940s film noir, in part a response to anxieties that the film’s plot was too opaque and so required explanation. This was cut in the second, 1992 release, rendering the action immediately more enigmatic. The first version’s final escape sequence, in which Deckard and Rachael fly to the freedom of a far northern wilderness, and when Deckard reveals that Rachael has no ‘termination date’, was also removed in the later release.
The most troubling addition to the ‘Director’s Cut’ is Deckard’s enigmatic dream vision of a unicorn, which he experiences after he has analysed Leon’s snap shot of his hotel room. In the closing moments of the film, Gaff, Deckard’s mysterious fellow blade runner, leaves a third and final origami creature in the path of Rachael and Deckard as they are about to leave – a unicorn. By this point Gaff has come to seem more like Deckard’s handler than simply another operative. Deckard picks up the foil sculpture, smiles wryly, and nods. Is he acknowledging that Gaff knows his most private thoughts and daydreams, because they too are implanted? There is an earlier, perhaps more troubling moment, when Gaff again mysteriously appears, immediately after Roy dies, and when he congratulates Deckard, saying, ‘You’ve done a man’s job, sir.’ This too could be read as an ‘authenticity test’, in that replicant Deckard has succeeded in doing the work of ‘a man’.
Here Blade Runner echoes Shakespeare’s King Lear, when the villainous Edmund is seeking to have Cordelia, Lear’s daughter, murdered. The otherwise anonymous individual who agrees to commit this final tragic crime of the play says simply, ‘If it be man’s work I’ll do it’ (5.3.40). He strangles the innocent daughter, proving that such atrocities are indeed the work of men. Rick Deckard is an ‘undecidable’ role, perhaps more, perhaps less than ‘a man’, but since he is the tragic hero of the movie, we have followed and identified with him as one of our own. In the final moments of the film, this serves to turn all the questions back on ourselves, as Deckard exclaimed when he discovered that Rachael is cybernetic: ‘How can it not know what it is?’
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Ladd Company, Shaw Brothers and Warner Brothers Pictures. Director: Ridley Scott. Screenwriters: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. Cinematographer: Jordan Cronenweth. Producer: Michael Deeley. Music: Vangelis. Cast: Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Sean Young (Rachael), Brion James (Leon), Rutger Hauer (Roy Batty), Joanna Cassidy (Zhora), Daryl Hannah (Pris).]
Scott Bukataman, Blade Runner, London, BFI Modern Classics, 1997.
Paul M. Sammon, Future Noir. The Making of ‘Blade Runner’, London, Orion Media, 1996.
Ridley Scott, ‘Directing Alien and Blade Runner: An Interview with Ridley Scott’, Danny Peary, in Ridley Scott: Interviews, Laurence F. Knapp, Andrea F. Kulas (eds), Jackson MS, University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Nigel Wheale, ‘Recognizing a “human-Thing”: Cyborgs, Robots and Replicants in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner’, in Nigel Wheale (ed.), The Postmodern Arts, London and New York, Routledge, 1995, pp. 101–14.
Slavoj Zizek, ‘I or He or It (the Thing) Which Thinks’, in Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology, Durham NC, Duke University Press, 1993, pp. 9–44.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.