“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”
Blade Runner is an iconic 1982 sci-fi film directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) and starring Harrison Ford. It walks a fine line between hard sci-fi and mainstream cinema, managing to keep the best parts of each: it poses some interesting moral and philosophical questions without overdoing it or sacrificing the plot for its message. If you’re not looking for the deeper questions, this is perfectly viable as a straight sci-fi detective story. But those questions are the most interesting part of the movie. It brings to mind a question from a character in Mass Effect, another sci-fi series that was likely influenced by Blade Runner: “Does this unit have a soul?”
(Also note, the original ending to the movie was somewhat controversial in that it pandered to those looking for a neat, happy ending to a very ambiguous story. This was likely a studio request made post-production. Ridley Scott later re-released his original vision for the ending as the Director’s Cut, which I believe is much better. I recommend watching that one, as it’s hinted at more throughout the movie than the Hollywood ending in the original.)
Blade Runner is set in a dark, futuristic 2019 where synthetic humans called replicants were created and used as slave labor on new settlement worlds until they revolted. Now, replicants without a tight leash are hunted by blade runners, law enforcement officials who kill rogue replicants. The plot follows Rick Deckard, a retired blade runner hunting a group of replicants who returned to earth for unknown reasons. It begins as a simple detective story, but as facts about the replicants are uncovered, we find that the story and it characters are not so black and white.
I thought you were supposed to be good. Aren’t you the “good” man?
The replicants are virtually indistinguishable from humans, and the only way to identify one (without dissecting it) is to gauge its underdeveloped emotional response to emotional situations. To keep replicants from developing “adult” emotions and becoming undetectable, they were given a four-year lifespan. So the replicants Deckard hunts down are all highly intelligent virtual humans with the emotional capacity of children, dealing with the heavy weight of their own mortality. We’re told the replicants don’t have real emotions, but we see them fear and hate and love; we’re told they’re not human, but they act more human than many of the non-replicant characters. Toward the end of the movie, I realized that I may have been wrong in rooting for the good guys—if there are any “good guys” in Blade Runner.
In the end, almost every major character is a sympathetic one, and there are no clearly-defined lines between good and evil. I truly felt bad for the replicants, even while shaking my head at their actions, although we also see enough of their creators and hunters to know that they’re clearly not evil people either. Blade Runner is very intentional about being descriptive without being prescriptive—it doesn’t tell you how you should feel about everything. The open-to-interpretation ending can sometimes be an unfulfilling cop-out, but it totally works here and sparks thoughtful conversations even 35 years later.
Blade Runner is great sci-fi, but it’s not for everyone. The plot, while far from boring, moves much more slowly than the typical Hollywood sci-fi films like Total Recall and Alien. The Director’s Cut ending, as I stated above, does not neatly wrap everything up and takes some thinking to unpack. But for those willing to think a bit after the movie, Blade Runner is a very rewarding cinematic experience. It’s also pretty much essential for any sci-fi fans. Give it a shot if you like sci-fi or lightly philosophical films.
Director: Ridley Scott