What it Is
Blade Runner is based loosely on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. And I do mean loosely. The connection is strained to be sure, but the themes and the intention of the novel and the film do connect.
In the near future (2019 actually) Earth is an ecological disaster. Many have left for the off-world colonies. On these colonies people are given replicants, androids that look and act human, as slaves. In order to be able to relate to the humans the replicants are given false memories to make them believe they are human; to be “more human than human.” In fear that they might actually develop real emotions the replicants are given a four year life span. Occasionally the replicants want more and run away. When that happens a special type of police officer called a “Blade Runner” is charged with tracking them down and “retiring” them. Retirement is permanent.
Four of the most advanced replicants, the nexus 6 type, escape and come to Earth. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is the Blade runner tasked to track them down. He seems to be having a moral dilemma as he does so because along the way he meets Rachel (Sean Young), someone he believes at first to be a real woman but who actually is herself a nexus 6, and falls in love with her.
Meanwhile the escaped nexus 6 replicants, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) attempt to find their creators and get a longer life. It does not go well.
Deckard eventually tracks down the replicants and has a final showdown with Roy that ends with a touching monologue in the rain.
I have deliberately kept this synopsis vague. First of all I don’t think I can truly do justice to the complexity of the story and second, ambiguity makes this film better so why not the synopsis as well.
Why You Must See It
First of all it’s beautiful. It is simply one of the most stunning films ever made. This is not hyperbole. Turn it on, turn the sound down; it will still be a wonderful thing to behold. But the look is just the beginning, it is the surface. The real brilliance is the story.
What does it mean to be human? Physiology? Is what your body is or looks like what makes you human? Perhaps memory? Does what you experience make you human? Maybe it’s how you react to stimuli? If you are empathetic to other life you are yourself alive.
But what if you were simply made to look like a human, a perfect simulation but artificial. And what if the memories you have are really implanted there, making you think you have lived for many years when in fact you are only hour old. And what if you were told that you were not real, not actual, what if you were told that you were a thing and to be used only as a slave.
These are the major themes of Blade Runner. What makes you a person? and What does it mean to live? Or to be alive. How do we know we are alive? What does that actually mean?
This is what Blade Runner is about. It is a beautiful meditation on existence. It is an accusation of society.
The society we see in Blade Runner is vertical. Literally the people who are higher up are wealthy and respected and those lower down are nothing. They are unseen, in shadow; they do the work and are forgotten. Roy, the one who is not human, is the least among us. He is a slave, he is considered a non-thing to be destroyed; and in his quest to simply be alive he ends up scared and violent. But in the end he is the most human, wanting only what all humans want; to live and to know why we are alive.
The movie is a noir-style detective film with multiple homages to older classics and hidden inside is an exploration of the human experience. All wrapped in sci-fi trappings of a world that is not yet but could very well be. The look, the sound, the music, the acting, the story, the themes, the production, the atmosphere – everything about this film combines to make it something unreal but somehow familiar. It is a unique vision filled with universal ideas.
Are There Flaws?
Yes, of course. Nothing is without flaws. But for this film it really depends on which version you are looking at. I recommend watching the Final Cut and whatever flaws there might be are minimal.
This is one of the few times I will say that a film is a masterpiece. There will be films on this list that are good, great or brilliant – but a very small number are absolute masterpieces. I truly believe Blade Runner is a work of art, a work of philosophy, a meditation on life and our society. Does that sound heavy handed? So be it. I never grow tired of this film. Every time I see it, and I have seen it many times, it still holds me in rapt attention. Every time I see it I am still that young boy seeing something he does not quite understand but knows it’s important; feeling something he can’t quite explain but knows it will change him. For me this film is a remarkable achievement.