PRINT March 2003


1982: Blade Runner

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner, 1982, still from a color film in 35 mm, 117 minutes.

BLADE RUNNER WAS A PRODUCT deeply of its time, but its singularity has sustained our attraction far beyond that moment. Much of the avalanche of commentary the film provoked in the decade of its release is increasingly irrelevant to its status now and longer term. Few viewers today will be preoccupied with how vividly it supposedly maps out the “unmappable” shape of the de-centered city or, now that the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union itself have vanished, how acutely it delineates the contours of late capitalism in the bipolar days of the cold war. Likewise, the movie’s retrospective links to the now hopelessly elastic category of film noir and its anticipations of cyberpunk are no longer essential screens through which to view it. Blade Runner’s fate may be more analogous to the trajectory of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which has transcended the extravagant surfaces of its originary moment. In that film, too, the protagonist observes, explores, and attempts to read an indecipherable urban field of experience on a quest to distinguish a real human being from a mechanical simulation of one.

In his 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick portrayed a thoroughly reified social world dominated by inanimate things and machines. Dick’s remarkable account of the petty ruin of individual experience and hope through the spread of “a peculiar and malign abstractness” became something quite different in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In the early Reagan-Thatcher era, the novel was remade into a world-weary celebration of the petrifying universe that Dick found so deadening. Few films achieve Blade Runner’s lyric fatalism: It makes emotionally credible the bleak threshold at which the technological products of global corporations become the objects of our love, our longings. The affecting moment when Rick (Harrison Ford) tells the android Rachael (Sean Young) to say “Kiss me” is a haunting evocation of a much broader subjective capitulation to the imperatives of technique and instrumental rationality, as if affirming with listless resignation: “Who cares what she is?” This sublimation of otherness is the indifferent ’80s resolution of the alienation that, in Dick’s novels of the late ’60s and early ’70s, led to psychosis and self-destruction.

Of course the replicants in Blade Runner, especially the Rutger Hauer character, Roy Batty, might seem to perpetuate the longtime habit of allegorizing robots and androids by reading their poignantly humanlike behavior as a cautionary index of how machinelike we have become. But the terms for such a reading don’t effectively exist in Blade Runner. What the film did with considerable novelty was to imagine the promiscuous space in which machines and humans were equally rootless—disposable parts of the same derelict systems. And both, outside of any binary categories, are various patchworks of memories real and false, of media effects, quasi emotions, and sensory experiences manufactured and programmed externally. Did Roy actually witness the galactic marvels he details while “dying” at the end of the movie (after exclaiming, “I’ve seen things . . .”), or were they mnemonic implants? Within the logic of the film it doesn’t matter. The seductive disorientation of Blade Runner is linked to the advent of a fallen world in which there is no longer the historical recollection available to grasp what it has fallen from. The film epitomized a broader ’80s experience of free-floating nostalgia cut loose from any object. Facilitated by the Vangelis score, Blade Runner’s phantasmagoric operation fraudulently affirms the possibility of retrospective yearning in a world that had made such sentiment effectively impossible.

Jonathan Crary is professor of art history at Columbia University and a founding editor of Zone Books.