‘Blade Runner’: The Sci-Fi Movie That Became a Geek Metaphor for Art

Over the decades, Ridley Scott's 1982 landmark has built up a fanboy mystique as a science-fiction fantasy too pure for this world.

Blade Runner,” Ridley Scott’s visionary 1982 dystopian noir, is a movie with a mystique that now outstrips its reality. It’s a film of majestic science-fiction metaphor, beginning with its opening shot: the perpetual nightscape of Los Angeles in 2019, the smog turned to black, the fallout turned to rain, the smokestacks blasting fireballs that look downright medieval against a backdrop of obsidian blight. “Blade Runner” wasn’t the first — or last — image of a desiccated future, but it remains one of the only movies that lets you feel the mechanical-spiritual decay. There’s a touch of virtual reality to the way we experience it, sinking into those blackened textures, reveling in the details (the corporate Mayan skyscrapers, the synthetic sushi bars, the Times Square meets Third World technolopolis clutter), seeing an echo of our own world in every sinister facet.

The other metaphor that drives “Blade Runner” is, of course, the spectral notion of replicants, the theme of technology-made-flesh — an idea expressed in the haunting title of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Born in 1928, Dick was a writer who lived on the spectrum of schizophrenia, and he had paranoid antennae that could penetrate to the core of what the modern world was doing to us. The detective noir plot of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is organized around replicants as a human-created threat to the species. But what gives the tale distinction is that the replicants, in spirit, are us.

That’s why the most haunting character in “Blade Runner” isn’t Harrison Ford’s Deckard. It’s Rutger Hauer’s Roy, the replicant who longs to go beyond his allotted lifespan. Hauer’s platinum punk dye job and Teutonic hauteur may make the character seem power-crazed, but in the end he’s surprisingly moving; he has what may be the most haunting death scene in all of sci-fi. Roy yearns to continue his existence for no other reason than that he loves life. He’s an android who doesn’t want to stop dreaming.

If you judge a film simply on the power of its metaphors, then “Blade Runner” would have to be reckoned some sort of masterpiece. But there’s an idiosyncrasy to the movie, one that relates to why it was underappreciated in its time. “Blade Runner” has a storyline that’s thin, serviceable, and more than a touch plodding. The film intrigues…and drags. It stuns you with its visual and atmospheric profundity…but it makes you wish its imagistic flair were embodied in a narrative of far greater ingenuity. Deckard is assigned to hunt down four replicant rebels, and one by one, he…well, hunts them down. He also falls for Sean Young’s porcelain-skinned retro replicant temptress, who’s photographed as if she were Kim Novak emerging from the shadows of “Vertigo” — but who should, by all rights, have been more of a femme fatale, and not just a supplicant romantic interest.

To me, “Blade Runner,” unlike “2001: A Space Odyssey,” is a visionary movie that falls short of greatness. That’s an opinion that got locked in for me when I saw the director’s cut released in theaters in 1992 and realized that I liked the compromised, studio-meddled version, with its voice-over and slapped-on “happy ending” (carved out of an outtake from “The Shining”), a little better. It’s not that I’m not for directors expressing their true selves. It’s that the “pure, uncut” version of “Blade Runner” only served to expose, all the more, the film’s bare-bones storytelling and flawed momentum.

Many of the film’s fans, though, would violently disagree with that, and it’s here that we come to the metaphysical peculiarity of the “Blade Runner” phenomenon. Over the decades, the film has been embraced for its virtues, but also for what I would call its aura of virtue: its transcendental mystique — the fact that it now plays like the sci-fi blockbuster equivalent of slow food. Its storytelling longueurs have been inflated into the very signifiers of its artistry. It has become not just a movie but a symbol: the anti-“Star Wars.” I remain a fan of “Blade Runner,” but to be in the cult of “Blade Runner” is to celebrate the purity of its vision, and to join in a conspiracy theory about the forces that would obliterate that purity.

The cornerstone of the conspiracy theory is, of course, the notion that Harrison Ford’s Deckard is actually a replicant. But if we take “Blade Runner: The Final Cut” as Ridley Scott’s ultimate statement on the matter, I see no real evidence. True, there’s the moment where Rachel, referring to the interrogation ritual that ferrets out replicants, asks Deckard, “You know that Voight-Kampff test of yours? Did you ever take it yourself?” But it’s a moment that doesn’t lead anywhere. Is the unicorn dream an implanted memory? There’s no way to tell.

Harrison Ford, smooth-faced and commanding, with barely a trace of the irascibility that would evolve into the grumpy-old-man scowl with which he plays Deckard in “Blade Runner 2049,” has a presence of distinctly warm-blooded energy. He fits into the film’s rather conventional scheme of having the human beings act, you know, human and the androids act with steely cool determination. The whole tension of the Deckard/Rachel love story is that it’s an ever-so-slightly risqué human-meets-android coupling; if Deckard were a replicant, that tension would leak right out of it.

Yet if you’re a member of the “Blade Runner” conspiracy cult, the notion that Deckard is actually a replicant is the sci-fi equivalent of the second-gunman theory. It’s the “truth” the System couldn’t handle, and therefore snuffed out. It’s the truth of fearlessly out-there, shoot-the-moon storytelling, a truth that represents the ultimate undermining of Hollywood blockbuster aesthetics: The stalwart all-American hero you’re seeing isn’t a hero at all but a grand illusion, a fake human, a walking hologram, an anti-movie star, an android program impersonating Harrison Ford. This is an idea that exerts an irresistible appeal to a certain breed of fanboy geek whose principal identification is with technology itself. According to this view, “Blade Runner” isn’t just a good sci-fi movie, it’s the brainiac future-shock art film that dared to buck the imperatives of the studio system.

There is already an intense, and worthy, debate going on about where “Blade Runner 2049” stands as a contemporary science-fiction achievement. Is it just austerely impressive, or is it truly great? Is it long and arid and pretentious, or is it the “Blade Runner” film that, at last, is just long, arid, and pretentious enough? In 2017, it’s exciting to see a mainstream movie ambitious and accomplished enough to provoke that level of debate. But what may be the most striking aspect of “Blade Runner 2049” — and the reason the debate will go on — is that the film has been conceived not simply as a “Blade Runner” sequel but as the ultimate fulfillment of the “Blade Runner” mystique.

The whole idea of making Ryan Gosling’s K. a replicant is the film’s answer to the Deckard conspiracy theory, its way of saying, “Look, we’re really doing it! Making the hero a man of implanted thought and feeling.” And the film’s languid-to-a-fault narrative strategy (in his Variety review, Peter Debruge compared it, astutely, to an Andrei Tarkovsky film) is its way of staying true to — and upping the ante on — the non-voiceover “Blade Runner” that Ridley Scott thought he was making and then fought the studio to release.

Could it be a sign of how far we’ve come that a couple of major movie studios have given the go-ahead to a film this uncompromised? Perhaps so. Yet it may also be a sign of the times that when you watch “Blade Runner 2049,” all the things the movie is ostensibly about — the decay of our world, the mysteries of memory, whether Gosling’s K. dreams of his electric housekeeper — take a back seat to the film’s existence as a fetishistically overdeliberate art geek-out. This, the movie says, isn’t your father’s “Blade Runner” — no, it’s the “Blade Runner” your father always longed to watch. Now that it’s here, it will be fascinating to see whether the film can loom as large as the original or merely as a conspiracy demystified, a consummation that only heightens our nostalgia.

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