Long before he got all Cecil B. DeMille on us with “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Ridley Scott vied with James Cameron (“The Terminator,” 1984) and Paul Verhoeven (“RoboCop,” 1987) in directing the most brilliant science fiction movie about the difference between human and non-human. In Scott’s “Alien” (1979) the difference couldn’t seem starker — Sigourney Weaver versus a nightmarish, parasitic, unkillable monstrosity that is at once phallic symbol and vagina dentata. Even in that movie, however, appearances can be deceiving.
But in “Blade Runner” (first released in 1982), an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” the difference proves elusive — which is the point, and perhaps the reason why the film probably has as many versions as Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979). Strangely enough, Scott and co-screenwriter David Peoples apparently never read Dick’s book.
Scott oversaw the production and endorsed the seventh (by some counts) version, “Blade Runner: The Final Cut” (2007). Predictably, it leaves fundamental questions unanswered.
Many of these puzzles are embedded in the infernal opening sequence, a panoramic shot of Los Angeles: November, 2019 which, along with the entire production design, epitomizes the “dark Satanic Mills” of William Blake’s epic poem “Milton.”
One could enlarge the images à la “Blow-Up” (1966), as does the title protagonist Deckard (Harrison Ford) when he examines a piece of photographic evidence. A whole world of esoteric references and significant minutiae might be found in the film’s set design alone. Who knew that the geisha on the Jumbotron is quoting from a Japanese Noh play while advertising a birth control pill? I’m surprised that no one has yet made a documentary analyzing such details, as with “Room 237” (2012), a study of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980). Not that I’m recommending it.
Like the set design, the entire film offers a mélange of many sources. Film noir weighs heavily (in one misbegotten theatrical version, Ford delivers a hard-boiled voice-over narrative). It also draws on the futuristic dystopia genre traceable at least as far back as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927). As in that film, the world consists of the elite who live in pyramidal towers (shades of “Exodus: Gods and Kings”) — such as the inventor Tyrell (Joe Turkel) — and the polyglot masses who mob the dank, rain-drenched streets. And the police. As his boss Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) responds when Deckard insists on resigning from the police force, “If you are not cop, you are little people.”
So Deckard relents. As a blade runner, his job is hunting down “replicants,” genetically manufactured androids used as slave labor in space colonies who, aside from their superior strength and intelligence, are nearly indistinguishable from real humans. After incidents of murderous rebellion, the replicants have been banned from Earth. Bryan assigns Deckard to “retire” four such “skin jobs.” To determine their humanity, he subjects suspects to a goofy steampunk version of the “Turing Test” (referenced in the current Oscar-nominated Alan Turing biopic “The Imitation Game”), focusing on that window of the soul, the eye. The crucial element to be determined? Empathy.
Does he discover the spark that makes us human? Perhaps on its deepest level, “Blade Runner” explores the conundrum of humankind as both divine and fallen, a theme as old as Genesis and the myth of Prometheus, and iterated in “Paradise Lost,” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” and in Blake’s arcane, visionary mythology.
The leader of the replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) embodies that enigma, establishing his credentials by quoting from Blake’s “America a Prophecy” and proving to be a prodigal son in a grisly climactic expression of the film’s recurrent eye motif. By the end, Deckard gazes at Batty with astonishment (though he may just be wondering where the white dove came from) and recognition. Their common bond is the tragedy of being mortal while perceiving the infinite.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.