Another look at Bladerunner

I’ve just watched Bladerunner again (the so called international theatrical release of 1982), one of my favourite films, and this is what I thought afterwards. One of the things that amuses me is how it has always been regarded as a science fiction film, when it’s clearly a noir thriller as far as genre goes; not that defining genre matters all that much. But the 2019 AD setting is just so much eyeliner and lipstick; it’s much more 1942, like Dick Richards’ Farewell My Lovely of 1975. Here’s looking forward to the past kid (or back to the future).

1 LA 2019

SF to action film

Even the permutations the film went through lessened the SF tag: a 1982 ‘theatrical release’ edited by Marsha Nakashima; a 1992  ‘Director’s cut’ edited by “studio executives”; and a 2007 ‘anniversary edition’ edited by Ridley Scott (to name a few of the versions). The two later versions mentioned show a change of emphasis from noir to police actioner, and make Bladerunner finally not that different from Someone to Watch Over Me of 1987, another good film from Ridley Scott. Both that film and the revised Bladerunner films are about a cop guarding a valuable female client who is threatened by manic forces out to kill her, and the relationship that develops between the two. In the 1987 film Mike Keegan and Claire give up their relationship with much heartache as something that’s not going to work, not unlike the “Who knows how much time we’ve got?” finale of Bladerunner.

For reasons unknown to me the theatrical release was known as the one with a happy ending. But no, not the copy I watched. The ending is far from happy, and the couple have an uncertain future (maybe some people call that happy)! In fact, if Deckard is a replicant then we do know how much time they’ve got: four years. After which both will become pieces of rusty metal. As for the voiceover, it added the requisite atmosphere of melancholy, and reinforced the sadness evoked by the urban ruins in which the film was set and the hopelessness felt by most of the characters (see 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely to see what I mean). All I can say is that in trashing the voiceover Harrison Ford showed why he never created a book or film, and remained an actor: or is the word ‘star’?

2 Rachael3 Maria

I wonder how much of an inspiration the great Fritz Lang was to Ridley Scott? Not only is Someone to Watch Over Me reminiscent of The Big Heat of 1953, with its convincing depiction of a relationship between Dave Bannion and his wife Katie, and the hunting down of a sadistic killer which almost costs Bannion his career. But the magnificent set designs for Metropolis of 1927 perhaps influenced the creation of those of Bladerunner.

Book and film

That film was written from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 SF novel that compares androids to humans in an effort to pinpoint that elusive quality’ ‘human’. The novel is set on earth after a nuclear war. Fallout has destroyed all animal life and led to mutations occurring among humans. Meanwhile, off earth, artificial humans are utilised as slaves on mining worlds near Mars. Any who escape their brief tenure of service before disablement and make it to earth are destroyed by bounty hunters. One of these bounty hunters is Rick Deckard, facing poverty and a loveless marriage in a sterile world. In despair Rick finds himself in an affair with an advanced android called Rachael, but Rachael is unable to reciprocate because she is a machine. The book is quite clear. Humans have something quite valuable which they constantly mismanage: emotion. The result is despair and nuclear desolation. Recommended reading: Divine Invasions by Lawrence Sutin (HarperCollins 1991).

Flash forward to 1982 and the writing of the Bladerunner script. Humans are threatened by sinister forces that are in some way superhuman. Special police are hired to defend humanity, and they develop skills in eliminating these threats. One policeman, Rick Deckard, forms a relationship with a woman whom he later finds is an advanced version of the androids he has been destroying. Then again, he is not sure he is not an android himself, made to eliminate the invading ones. The policeman is the criminal. The couple evade the police force trying to capture both of them and they take off for a distant world where they might have a future together.

4 city5. city

One of these outlines, that of the novel, is SF. The other, a general idea of what the film is about, need not be. For example, try substituting ‘alien’, or ‘ET’, for ‘android’ and see if you end up in the future. You end up in a cold war paranoia type of film they made in the 50s. In some cases the movie script runs counter to the book.

I guess I could be clearer about this. Dystopia and utopia concerning science are SF. Action and crime drama are adventure stories. The setting is immaterial: Star Wars is not SF for instance, but adventure. As far as genre goes.

Androids and humans

Take the androids. We are told they have an active life of four years before deactivation, which is inbuilt. One of the androids deactivates while fighting with Deckard, so the due date is imminent. So there is no need to hunt them. And surely there is a better way to deactivate an android than shooting it in the CPU with a pistol. You’d expect the casing would break, springs and circuit boards drop out, and a faint voice say, “This does not compute”. Things were done much more realistically in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The androids in Bladerunner are treated as though they are human beings. This enables the comparison that Dick wanted to make  between man and machine, but at the cost of the SF component. The issue between man and machine is a current one, one fresh in everyone’s mind in 1982 with the dawn of the personal computer age. Were computers a threat or an aid to humanity, people then asked. Not an SF concept, but new technology.

Look at those androids again. If they can’t be distinguished from humans, then they are human. The film becomes one that examines the morality of some humans exploiting others. And the government forces support this exploitation, very much like a police state. Could this already be happening in America? Is the film social analysis rather than SF? Did you get permission to watch this film?

Past, present or future

The same goes for the sets. Is this really the future, or the present? Greenhouse climate affecting an environmentally damaged earth, or a rainy night in a big city: Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York or Los Angeles? OK, OK, there are the flying cars (a bit like helicopters). But what else is specifically the future? This is the future because the film tells you so. There’s nothing much depicted that has to be in the future. We have acid rain, the greenhouse effect, nuclear disposal problems, multinational exploitation and unplanned mutation, and it’s only 2015. All these problems started in 1945 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and most existed in 1982.


7 skyscraper

As for the plot! Four killers invade earth and only one man can stop them. It’s a job for James Bond, no, Arnie, no, Charles Bronson, no, Chuck Norris, no, Rambo, no, Harrison Ford, the guy who kept the aliens at bay and saved princess Leila. How SF can you get without being SF! From Star Wars to Top Gun, and a million others. Is it any wonder the replicants are killers, when they’re based on human beings, aka the killer ape? We admire killers, and heroes like James Bond or even Rick Deckard are heroes because they are good at killing, and allow us to unleash our destructive fantasies.

So, an action film, that’s for the funding, and for the beer and pizza crowd. Throw in a few noir touches for the retro crowd by filming at night and having a PI and some police shooting it out. Lightly sprinkle some SF concepts from Philip K Dick, like, ‘what is human’, and ‘we are our memories’. Add some social criticism of multinationalism and the police state, genetic engineering, the place of computers and associated moral issues. Then bring in a love story. Too bloody clever by half. No wonder the film flopped at first.

In fact Bladerunner was a film no one was happy with. No one, including Philip K. Dick, liked the script (even after production had finished). It was hard to find funding, and the film was almost shelved. It was difficult getting a director, and Scott was the 12th choice (says Wikipedia). The star, Harrison Ford, didn’t like the treatment, and pushed for another Star Wars (which would have made more money). And the public stayed away, the film only breaking even for it’s initial release.

Melancholy and despair

But the film is a masterpiece, like Casablanca, which was filmed in a week after four writers worked on the script while the actors were filming the first scenes. It happens. In the case of Bladerunner (I think the two word title was used only because the one word was too long to fit on one line on the poster) the film worked because the SF theme was minimised.

8 metropolis

Think about what SF means. Originally it was an optimistic forecast of how science would benefit civilisation in the future. After a few disappointments like the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a counter forecast developed showing how damaging uncontrolled science could be to the future (Metropolis, Nineteen Eighty Four). By contrast the developed genre of noir showed how bitter disappointment could make you, as betrayal followed love and commitment (reflecting the sadness felt by returned soldiers on returning to civilian life after WWII).

Bladerunner was originally a dystopia, a picture of a doomed world, like Brave New World. Philip K Dick is in the same class as George Orwell (or George Carlin for that matter ). He thought the worst had already happened. Dick’s persistent world, whether he was writing SF or contemporary fiction, was filled with despair. His characters deal with desolation, they deal with boredom, with a wasted world. The bomb has dropped, the multinationals and Big Brother have taken over. Only a simulacra of reality has survived. With noir things are not quite so bad. Despair is replaced by melancholy, which has at least the traces of hope. There are memories, and the mood is of sadness. Once there was love, and then it was betrayed.

The mood of despair doesn’t draw large audiences to theatres but nostalgia does, and Hollywood had no trouble seeing that to make a possibly successful film would require a change in the treatment of Dick’s novel. Hence the many scripts and the melancholic noir treatment (and the romance).

Genre: the understood

This is where genre comes in. Genre in literature probably started with ancient Athenian drama, which used stories of the gods as plots. The audience always knew what was about to happen, which is the essence of any genre format. It goes back further, to our subconscious. Children like being told stories, and often demand they be told the same stories, which must always be told the same way. Familiarity breeds reassurance.

So it is with genre. Dystopia though is not genre, it is social criticism. It is satire. It demands knowledge of current situations, and concern for what is happening to our society on the part of audiences. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not genre. Like most of Philip K. Dick’s work it is only marginally SF.

9 exterior10 interior

So the makers of Bladerunner had to change things to get a good return on their dollar (in Hollywood film is a form of investment). They fell back on a genre treatment, first noir, then police action drama (in the later versions of the film). But that doesn’t explain the film’s impact.

Attention to detail

It’s all in the details. The sets, whether inspired by Metropolis or not, required almost 50 technicians working full time to create (with no CAD). Scott, with a recalcitrant star and a need to rework the material he had to make it more commercial, was yet obsessively insistent on perfection, much as Stanley Kubrick was. This made the film great, even if at the time it was uncommercial and seemed bloody minded on his part.

I counted 318 crew members listed on IMDB, more than you usually see. To an unusual degree the film is the achievement of its production crew, from DOP Jordan Cronenweth, Production designer Lawrence Paull, Art director David Snyder, and the sets, costume and special effects crews. The cast all turned in especially good performances, and Harrison Ford did a great voiceover despite his objections. This is an impressive achievement, one Ridley Scott should be proud of. He had to attract funding and hold off dissatisfied investors, while controlling the overall feel of the film, down to magazine covers and the appearance of takeaway food, by supervising over 300 staff and directing 30 actors. And it paid off. Audiences have never doubted the reality of the locales and sets, costumes and props used in the film. We’ve been there, we know the place.

This gives terrific authenticity to the film, and against this background its somewhat weird mix of SF, noir, action and melodrama can be accepted, especially with the emotive Vangelis soundtrack. A great noir film, if only marginally SF.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


4 thoughts on “Another look at Bladerunner

  1. Guess this stuff about genre is strange to you Bia, judging by how your country’s music makes nonsense of marketing classifications in USA dominated markets. Like, MPB is jazz. Across the page is l’appartement, which mixes romance and thriller genres. I sometimes fear that what we see is merely what we buy. Over here in Oz BTW the video libraries are closing, victims of Netflix.

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