film

Ridley Scott's Blade Runner

“YOU NEXUS, HAH?” asks the wizened Asian technician at Eyeworld. “I made your eyes.” Roy Batty, the android replicant, purses his lips in ironic amusement: “Well, if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”

References to eyes abound throughout Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, not only at Eyeworld. The film’s second shot features a huge disembodied eye, staring unblinkingly at the infernal city spread before it (visible in the pupil as an impossibly clear reflection). Replicants’ eyes reflect with a glowing red when the light hits them right. The replicant-detecting apparatus of a blade runner—an android-hunting cop—focuses on a subject’s eye, magnifying it to gauge empathic response; when a replicant kills, it’s often by violence to the eyes. Memories, human and replicant, are linked to visual images: photographs. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” Batty declares, just before he dies. This, then, is a drama about vision.

Film is often a drama of vision, as Stephen Heath once noted, but the science fiction movie is more centered on vision than most genres. View-screens abound in SF, along with telescopes, microscopes, scanning devices, X-ray eyes, and the scan-lined video vision of robocops and terminators. Brooks Landon has written that the science fiction film produces its sense of wonder precisely from the presentation of new ways of seeing.1 In its sumptuous urban landscapes of infinite detail, Blade Runner resembles Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, as Annette Michelson once described it in the pages of Artforum: it emphatically returns spectators to their own actions of perception and cognition.2

To mark the tenth anniversary of Blade Runner’s release, the film has recently been distributed in a “director’s cut” that restores its original ending, once considered too ambivalent for a general public, and that also eliminates the banal narration added to the previous version out of related hopes for an easy clarity. (According to Premiere magazine, Harrison Ford as ex–blade runner Rick Deckard made his narration purposely lackluster in hopes it would be junked.) Now Blade Runner is more gorgeous than ever, especially with its grandeur properly restored to the scale of the big screen.

The film’s visual design, primarily by Lawrence Paull and Syd Mead, was partly derived from the art style of Heavy Metal magazine, as drawn by artists like Moebius (Jean Giraud), Philippe Druillet, and Angus McKie. In its turn, the urban density described in Blade Runner strongly influenced the literary subgenre of cyberpunk—the 1980s’ image of the future. When Blade Runner first appeared, in 1982, cyberpunk was as yet unnamed, and the film seemed to lack a context. Few critics recognized its power—the power to construct a context for itself: much of cyberpunk now looks like an attempt to grapple with the esthetic and ethical issues raised—or focused—by Blade Runner, issues central to concurrent concepts of post-Modernism.

Blade Runner’s special effects were supervised by Douglas Trumbull, who also created the psychedelic “Stargate” effects for 2001 and the lovely lightships of Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977. Trumbull’s effects are profoundly contemplative, and in each of these films there is at least one sequence wherein the characters stare in mute wonderment at the marvels they behold. These spectacular fields—the Stargate, the Mothership, Los Angeles 2019—testify to the sublimity of technology, though the experience of its beauty is infused with the anxiety that acknowledges its power. They are also necessarily reflexive, and testify to both the beauty and the terrifying power of cinema itself: a technological marvel of vision.

With the narration jettisoned, the film’s formal opulence is more pronounced. As Deckard approaches police headquarters early in the movie, for example, the viewer is now free to contemplate the cityspace with him—to pick out its details through the hovercar’s rain-spattered windshield, to make connections between the dashboard graphic displays and the topography through which the car glides; ultimately, to read the space. Freed of the teleology of a narration that tells more than it should, the viewer is more fully engaged by the inexhaustible details of Blade Runner’s elaborate scenography. Further, now that we can hear them, ambient sounds and advertising slogans (“Helping America into the new world!”) enhance the film’s sonic texture, providing an effective analogue to the decentered scopic field.

It was only to be expected that Blade Runner would be phenomenologically enriched with the elimination of its explicatory voice-over. What surprises is the degree to which its narrative is improved. Now when we first meet Rick Deckard—slouching against a wall, ordering noodles, and being spirited off by police—we know little about him and his value to them. This brief uncertainty regarding his legal status introduces the deeper levels of doubt with which the film is concerned. Where once Deckard’s laconic explanations placed him somewhat above the dramaturgical fray, now his character is on the edge from the start. He has quit the force; “retiring” replicants has clearly lost its appeal. Deckard’s private remorse belies the matter-of-fact statements he makes to others. His panicked response to the superhumanoid Nexus 6 replicants becomes a logical extension of the anxiety that marks his character throughout. Rick Deckard is out of control, here and now. No retrospective, reassuring voice-over can any longer disguise that fact.

With Deckard emerging as a character of some complexity, ontological issues are more sharply focused. Is Deckard a replicant? The possibility is less emphatically pursued here than in the very different novel on which the film is based, Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968, but there are continual hints that Deckard may be more than merely human. What, for example, of the blade runner who meets his demise in the film’s opening scene? Is it coincidence that he looks and sounds remarkably like Deckard—as if he were the same model? Small wonder that Deckard is on edge, and that his anxiety so easily slides into paralysis and panic. Science fiction writer and critic Norman Spinrad has praised Blade Runner for its faithfulness to the theme of Dick’s novel: that empathy, not biology, should define the human.3 Thus the film’s restored ending concentrates on first Batty’s and then Deckard’s acceptance of mortality and uncertainty. The earlier version’s coda, with Deckard and the replicant Rebecca sailing over pristine mountains in their private hovercar, is gone. Nature, the space beyond the city, no longer exists; only the simulated animals remain.

Blade Runner is most noteworthy not for its absolutist definition of a humanityrooted in morality, however, but for its acceptance of a reality in which the simulacrum is fully the equal of the “real.” If the film’s visuals constitute a “rhetoric of the technological sublime,” to use Leo Marx’s term,4 that only partly masks the anxiety emergent within a now fully technologized existence. What I have elsewhere referred to as the film’s “fractal geography” yields a vast array of visual details of a world fully mediated by the spectacle.5 Blade Runner both over- and undervalues vision as a means of knowledge and, finally, as a grounding experience for the definition of self. While the film’s drama and cognitive play are both entirely bound up in the act of seeing, Blade Runner remains a film in which seeing guarantees nothing.

Scott Bukatman teaches film study at New York University. His book Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction will be published in the spring by Duke University Press.

NOTES

1. Brooks Landon, The Aesthetics of Ambivalence: Rethinking SF Film in the Age of Electronic (Re)Production, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992, p. 94.

2. Annette Michelson, “Bodies in Space: Film as Carnal Knowledge,”— Artforum VII no. 6, February 1969, pp. 54-63.

3. Norman Spinrad, Science Fiction in the Real World, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.

4. Leo Marx, Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 195.

5. Scott Bukatman, “The Cybernetic (City)State: Terminal Space Becomes Phenomenal,” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 2 no. 2, Summer 1989, pp. 43-63. This essay will be reprinted in my forthcoming book, Terminal Identity.