“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time. Like tears in rain. Time to die.”
Do androids dream of electric sheep? Do replicants dream of unicorns? Does Sean Young dream of being in a movie where she isn’t inappropriately manhandled by a major movie star?
In Episode 25 of When We Were Young, the lines between man and machine are blurred as we discuss Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Daryl Hannah, in advance of the Ryan Gosling-starring sequel Blade Runner 2049.
First, the gang shares childhood visions of Things To Come, and wonders why there are so many dystopias in the fictional future (and so few utopias). Then, we dive into the year 2019 (by way of 1982, in 2017) to revisit the darkest, wettest, most neon-geisha-filled depiction of Los Angeles ever. We all agree that Blade Runner has amazing parking meters and fierce eye makeup, but is the story itself worth the film’s cult classic status? Opinions may differ!
In a special bonus segment for superfans at episode’s end, the gang celebrates a full year of podcasting. We share the pop culture revisit that surprised us most, our favorite funny moments (that are all about Becky), and the resurrection of Playtime, in which a Death Match determines once and for all what movie, album, or TV show held up the best over the years. (Hint: it’s not Roger Rabbit, Kevin Smith, or Buffy.)
Budget: $28 million
Opening Weekend: $6.2 million
Domestic Total Gross: $27.6 million
Lifetime Gross: $32.9 million
Metacritic Score: 72
At first glance, it may strike you as odd that Blade Runner has the reputation it does. It is one of the landmark sci-fi films, with a die-hard fan base that will passionately debate the film’s central mysteries and pore over various cuts of the movie. It’s hard for any film to live up to that kind of legend, and Blade Runner in a particular is a strange case. Certain themes and narratives feel disjointed to anyone who isn’t familiar with the source material or the storied history of the film’s creation. Most audiences in 1982 didn’t “get” Blade Runner upon first viewing, and even now, that initial visit to Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles of 2019 is rife with frustration and confusion. Very little about this futuristic world is explained explicitly, and a lot of what is explained is fairly obscure. A more straightforward film would have shown us a lot of what we’re told. (Blade Runner might look more like that movie, if not for its budget troubles.) Most questions go unanswered — and not just the ones about Deckard being a replicant. I have a hard time imagining anyone sitting through Blade Runner just once and feeling they fully understood everything. As we’re seeing now with Aronofsky’s mother!, audiences tend to resent films that challenge them. Blade Runner was initially seen as a disappointment.
I never saw Blade Runner when I was young. I first viewed it a few years ago. Like audiences in 1982, I was impressed by the production design and murky about some plot points. I remembered the film’s aesthetics better than I remembered its story. I could tell you that Daryl Hannah’s character had some killer makeup, but couldn’t remember the actual function of her character, or whether she was a hero or a villain.Ultimately, the whole point of Blade Runner is that Pris is neither a hero nor a villain — nobody is. We’re not used to that kind of ambiguity in big budget sci-fi films, which might be why the film has been hard to connect to for audiences just looking for a good time. We don’t typically watch something with the budget and star power of Blade Runner expecting complex moral questions and ambiguous themes. A normal studio movie might make us question whether blade runners killing replicants was necessary or a gross injustice, but then they would answer that question. In Blade Runner, Deckard is neither heroic nor corrupt, as far as we can tell. Ford’s performance doesn’t indicate one way or another whether we’re supposed to like this guy. We think we’re supposed to be on his side because he’s the protagonist of the story… but honestly, aside from that, what stake do we have in this guy?
Similarly, the replicants are more dynamic characters — child-like Pris, the “pleasure model”; the tragically intelligent Roy Batty; sassy snake-dancing stripper Zhora; and innocent young Rachael, as she undergoes the existential crisis of realizing she’s synthetic. Supposedly, replicants are dangerous because they lack empathy. But we don’t get a lot of empathy from humans, either. Rachael cries when she realizes she’s an android. Pris seems to get some genuine joy out of her friendship with J.F. Sebastian, however self-serving it is in the end. Batty spares Deckard’s life for unknown reasons. Maybe the replicants are manufacturing their empathy — but then again, maybe we all are, on some level. Deckard gives a complicated test meant to detect empathy in humans and differentiate them from androids, but can empathy be legitimately measured? Who’s to say whether replicants do or don’t have it? There’s no proof in Blade Runner to draw a solid conclusion.This is a powerful allegory for our times (or any times, really). Through various twists of fate, some classes of human beings have decided they’re more valid than others. They’ve taken it upon themselves to decide how the “lesser” race or class should live, and often, when they should live. American slavery and Nazism are two towering examples, but there’s still plenty of arbitrary judgment about who should live, and how they should live, going around. Blade Runner barely even broaches the subject in its text — rather, the film’s moral murkiness requires viewers to grapple with it on their own (or not). That’s a key reason why the film has been reexamined so many times, has never exactly felt “finished” — because it necessitates thinking, research, and discussion outside the text to even make sense of it. That’s not everybody’s cinematic bag. (Again, see Mother.)
Of course, I’m not sure all this ambiguity was intentional. From draft to draft, and from script to screen, Blade Runner lost key visuals, dialogue, and plot points that would almost certainly have made it stronger from a narrative perspective. Add to this the disparate thematic and character ideas of the director, writers, actors, and crew — it seems this group was rarely on the exact same page with who was doing what, why, and what it meant to the story overall. The result is more like a dazzling art project than a coherent motion picture — which is interesting, now that we’re about to get the sequel Blade Runner 2049 from Denis Villeneuve. It’s hard to imagine that this sequel won’t be at least a little more straightforward than its 1982 predecessor.
Blade Runner is endlessly open to interpretation, because there’s no one answer to any challenge it poses. It was perfectly timed to be owned and dissected by cinephiles with the rise of home video in the 1980s, and lives on now because it’s also a great movie to pore over on the internet. I come away from it fascinated as much by what isn’t in the movie as what is. It’s a very unique film.
The 1982 Blade Runner takes place in 2019.
Blade Runner 2049 was made in 2017.
So we should expect Blade Runner 2066 in 2052, Blade Runner 2088 in 2087, and Blade Runner 2105 in… 2122?