BLADE RUNNER (1982, Dir. Ridley Scott)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker[1]

Though not a huge commercial success on its initial release, Blade Runner has gone on to become one of the most important and influential science fiction films ever released. The distinctive noir look of the film has combined with its complex and sophisticated exploration of the relationship between human beings and their technology to make Blade Runner a favorite topic of academic film critics, who have seen it as a prime example of postmodernism in SF film. Blade Runner is a dark and brooding film that couldn’t be more different from E.T. the Extraterrestrial, released only two weeks earlier in June 1982. Together, these two films topped off a five-year explosion in science fiction film production from 1977 to 1982 and provided a reminder of the tremendous range of material that could be encompassed by the genre. On the other hand, the original version of Blade Runner did include a studio-imposed happy ending of a kind not usually found in film noir but rather typical of Hollywood films at the time.

The original theatrical release of Blade Runner also occurred just as the neo-noir phenomenon was gaining steam. This film links to that phenomenon in its plot (which is basically a detective story), its main character (a brooding loner), its female lead (something of a femme fatale), and in its dark urban setting. It also includes extensive voiceover narration by the main character, further linking it to film noir, in which such voiceovers are so common. Such connections make Blade Runner a key film in what has sometimes been called the “tech noir” cycle (named for a club that appears in James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator), in which elements derived from film noir are used to create an atmosphere of darkness and corruption in science fiction films—though it is also the case that Blade Runner has been so influential in its own right that later tech noir films are often linked mostly to Blade Runner itself than to the noir tradition in general.

After opening credits shown against a blank, black background (accompanied by the haunting music of Vangelis), Blade Runner begins as on-screen text explains the basic scenario of the film[2]. Early in the twenty-first century, the Tyrell Corporation has advanced robot production into the “Nexus” phase of genetically engineered “replicants” that are virtually identical to humans but superior in strength and agility. The replicants are intended for use off-world as slave labor in hazardous environments. After a bloody rebellion against their human masters in an off-world colony, replicants have been declared illegal on earth on penalty of “retirement,” execution by special police agents known as blade runners.

The film is set, we are told, in Los Angeles, in November 2019.[3] It begins with a panoramic shot of a hellish nighttime cityscape in which flames burst into the air from towering smokestacks while a flying car jets across the screen. The distinctive look of the city, combining high-tech vehicles and huge, brilliant video billboards with an overall air of darkness and decay, is established early-on the most memorable visual element of the entire film. At this point, we as viewers are not at all certain what kind of city, what kind of future world, we are about to encounter. It looks both futuristic and retro. In fact, we’re not quite sure what we’re seeing at all. A close-up shot of an eyeball then reflects the flames from the smokestacks, echoing our own situation as viewers. Then a flying car approaches the monumental headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation, which seem ultramodern, yet also look more like an ancient temple than a modern research and manufacturing facility, further emphasizing the incongruous mixture of architectural styles from various periods that marks the landscape of the film’s Los Angeles.

With all of these motifs already in place within a few brief seconds, the actual action begins as new Tyrell employee Leon Kowalski (Brion James) is about to be given the Voight-Kampff test, designed to detect whether he might actually be one of a group of recently escaped replicants. He is dressed in something that looks like a prison smock, as if he is a prisoner. The examiner, Holden (Morgan Paull), puffs on a cigarette as he administers the test, filling the room with smoke and adding a touch of noir ambience to the high-tech setting. Holden has a large thermos on his desk, presumably filled with coffee. They sit beneath a large ceiling fan that spans the table between them, slowly turning, increasing the retro feel of the scene. Fearful of being detected as a replicant, Leon grows agitated and then blasts Holden with a powerful weapon that he holds beneath the table. This moment of shocking violence sets the film in motion, making it clear that illegal replicants are, in fact, on the loose in Los Angeles, and that they can be highly dangerous, because they are fighting for their lives.

The film cuts back to the cityscape with a huge video screen on the side of a building showing a Japanese woman, apparently in some kind of advertisement, perhaps for a drug. A loud speaker from a floating advertising platform encourages individuals to sign up for emigration to the off-world colonies to seek a “new life” of “opportunity and adventure.” This is a world that is saturated with advertising. It is also saturated with hints of the existence of these off-world colonies, whose presence hovers in the margins of the entire film, though we never actually learn much about them. Down on street level, milling crowds carry umbrellas against the incessant rain, suggesting that something, perhaps some sort of environmental disaster or nuclear holocaust, has occurred to change the normally dry climate of Los Angeles in a radical fashion. Protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) reads a newspaper in an Asian diner. His voiceover announces that he is a former professional “killer,” in a style clearly designed to evoke the voiceovers that were so common in film noir. These voiceovers, though, seem a bit forced and artificial here, and one can understand why they were removed in the later versions of the film (and why Harrison Ford reportedly hated them). He orders some food from a Japanese counterman. As he starts to eat his noodles, he is approached by the mysterious police agent Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who seems to be of indeterminate ethnicity, perhaps a mixture of Hispanic and Asian, much like the city’s street-level population. Gaff speaks a mongrel language known as “Cityspeak”—“a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you,” as Deckard explains in a voiceover. Deckard understands this language perfectly well, but pretends that he doesn’t, just to make things difficult for Gaff. Still, Gaff eventually manages to bring Deckard to see police captain Bryant of the Blade Runner Unit.

In the station, Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh) informs Deckard that a group of four highly advanced Nexus 6 replicants are loose on earth and that the ace “blade runner” Deckard is needed to hunt them down, even though he has officially retired from the force. When Deckard declines the invitation and starts to leave, Bryant reminds him that, in this society, “If you’re not cop, you’re little people,” suggesting that this future world might be a sort of dystopian police state. Meanwhile, Gaff makes an origami figure of a chicken and places it on the desk, announcing a motif that runs throughout the film, in which Gaff tends to leave origami figures everywhere he goes. Deckard realizes that he is not being given a choice, so he grudgingly agrees to the assignment. Bryant then shows him a video of the interview with Leon while he explains the background of the current crisis: six replicants escaped from an off-world colony, killing 23 humans and hijacking a shuttle to earth. One replicant has been killed; five are still on the loose. Bryant shows Deckard a profile of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), a combat model replicant designed for optimum self-sufficiency, who is suspected of being the leader of the group. In addition, Deckard is briefed on the other escaped “skin-jobs” (a common racist slur for the replicants) including Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), “trained for an off-world kick murder squad,” and Pris (Daryl Hannah), a “basic pleasure model,” designed for service in military clubs in the outer colonies. Attentive viewers, of course, will notice that, including Leon, Deckard has been briefed on only four escaped replicants, which matches Bryant’s initial count, though the detailed briefing has indicated that there are five.

Replicants, we learn, have been designed to have a life span of only four years to prevent them from having time to develop independent emotional responses and thus rebel against their servitude to humans. To begin his investigation Deckard is sent to the headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation to examine a Nexus 6 replicant there. He is greeted by Rachael (Sean Young), who is introduced as the niece of Doctor Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the head of the corporation and chief designer of the replicants. However, Deckard’s administration of the Voight-Kampff test identifies Rachael as a replicant. Film noir fans will also immediately identify her by her look and her cool demeanor as a potential high-tech femme fatale, and she adds to the iconography of that role by beginning to smoke during the test. Tyrell explains that Rachael is an experiment: she herself thinks she is human and has been given artificial memories to create a “cushion” for her emotions and thus make her easier to control. Tyrell, meanwhile, seems unconcerned with any ethical dilemmas that might arise from this sort of manipulation. For him, it’s all a matter of business. “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell,” he tells Deckard, suggesting a link between capitalism and dehumanization that runs through the film.

Leon’s hotel room, complete with noir shadow patterns.

Deckard and Gaff go to Leon’s hotel room in an attempt to track him down. Deckard, playing detective, discovers some sort of scale, perhaps reptilian, in the bathtub. He also finds a collection of photographs (some seemingly old) that seem to suggest that Leon, like Rachael, might have been given an artificial past. Gaff leaves behind another Origami figure when they depart. Meanwhile, Batty and Leon call on Chinese genetic engineer Hannibal Chew (James Hong), who designs eyes for Tyrell’s replicants. Batty quotes (actually misquotes) from William Blake’s poem “America: A Prophecy,” in lines that suggest a rebellion of the young against the old, with resonances of Lucifer’s rebellion against God as well. Batty then questions Chew about the expected expiration dates of the Nexus 6 replicants, but Chew tells him that only Tyrell himself has such information. He also suggests that one J. F. Sebastian might be able to get them in to see Tyrell.

Deckard returns to his own apartment and finds Rachael waiting for him outside his door. The building seems both futuristic and old, rundown. Deckard’s very unusual and distinctive apartment is based on the interior of the Ennis House, which was built in Los Angeles in 1924, following a Mayan-inspired design by Frank Lloyd Wright. This house looks unusual enough to create a sort of defamiliarization effect: even though it is a real house, it seems more like something from a movie. It has, in fact, been used as a filming location in several movies, including The Thirteenth Floor (1999), a tech noir film in which it is used specifically as a nod to Blade Runner. And the nod is appropriate. The Thirteenth Floor is a film about simulated realities, and Rachael here shows Deckard an old photo of herself as a little girl with her mother, trying to convince him that she isn’t a replicant. When he reveals that he knows some of her secret memories, she tearfully realizes that her memories are merely simulations. The darkness of the scene, meanwhile, is reinforced by the semi-darkness of the apartment, punctuated by noirish Venetian-blind shadow patterns on the walls and ceiling.

Douglas Hall’s distinctive apartment in “The Thirteenth Floor.” The film playing on his television is the classic 1946 film noir “Gilda,” starring Rita Hayworth.
Rick Deckard’s apartment in “Blade Runner.”

In the meantime, the film continues to cut back and forth between Deckard and the replicants. In the next scene, Pris goes to the building in which Sebastian lives, pretending to be frightened, lost, hungry, and homeless, so that he will invite her to come in with him to the abandoned, dilapidated building where he has taken up residence with his numerous genetically engineered creatures, or “toys,” which serve as something like comic pastiches of the replicants, though there is something unsettling about them as well. Back at Deckard’s apartment, he sits at an old piano that is decorated with his own old photos, echoing the old photos of Rachael and Leon and providing a subtle hint that Deckard himself could be a replicant.[4]

Deckard then looks at one of Leon’s photos (apparently of the hotel room) and decides to examine it more closely with an electronic image scanner, identified in the film’s credits as an “Esper.” Eventually, Deckard realizes that there is a sleeping woman in the room, her reflection barely visible in a mirror on the wall. He zooms in on her face and prints out a hardcopy: the woman is Zhora. Continuing his detective work, Deckard takes the scale found in Leon’s room to an old Asian woman on the street, who uses an incongruously high-tech microscope to identify the scale as a coming from a high-quality artificial snake made by one Abdul Ben Hassan. Deckard locates Hassan, an Egyptian, in the city’s Arab sector and there learns that the snake was sold to Taffey Lewis in Chinatown, still another component of the city’s multicultural identity—and a signal of the importance of the film Chinatown (1974) as background to Blade Runner.

Deckard goes to Chinatown and interviews Lewis (Hy Pyke) in the latter’s decadent, Oriental-looking bar, where most of the patrons seem to be smoking pipes, presumably containing opium. Lewis refuses to identify the woman in the picture from the Esper, but, then a dancer identified as “Miss Salome”[5] performs on stage with a large snake (the performance is not actually shown, though we hear Middle Eastern–sounding music), and Deckard immediately makes the connection to the snake scale. Asian motifs are prominent throughout Blade Runner, but this scene is probably the one in which the film most directly echoes the Orientalism that runs through so much of film noir. Deckard approaches Salome backstage and begins to question her in a nerdy voice reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart’s nerdy book-collector voice in The Big Sleep, but she blows him off.Recognizing her as Zhora, he follows “Salome” to her dressing room, where she nearly kills him with her bare hands, but some other dancers arrive, interrupting her. Zhora rushes out into the street. Deckard chases after her, winds his way through the teeming (and highly diverse, including some Hari Krishnas) population that inhabits the street, and eventually guns her down, sending her crashing though plate glass store windows. She struggles back to her feet; he shoots her again, sending her crashing through still another window. This time she’s down for good. Leon secretly looks on as Deckard views the body.

“Salome” and her snake.

Deckard goes to get something to drink, and Gaff again shows up, with Bryant in tow. Bryant reminds him that there are four replicants to go, including Rachael, who has now disappeared from the Tyrell Corporation. However, the fact that Bryant had initially said that there were five replicants raises the question of whether Rachael had actually been one of the escapees all along, perhaps having taken refuge in the Tyrell Corporation. After Bryant leaves, Deckard spots Rachael in the crowded street and tries to go after her but is accosted by Leon, who demands to know how long he will live, stating that his birthday is April 10, 2017. He uses his superhuman strength to begin to beat Deckard to death, toying with him like a cat with a mouse. As Deckard drifts out of consciousness, Leon rouses him: “Wake up! Time to die!” he announces. He prepares to drive his thumbs into Deckard’s eye sockets, when suddenly Leon is shot and killed by Rachael, who has apparently found Deckard’s gun lying on the street. Leon falls dead.

Afterward, back at Deckard’s apartment, Rachael is badly shaken. Deckard says that he sometimes gets the shakes, too. “It’s part of the business,” he says. “I’m not in the business,” she says. “I am the business.” Later, he makes a romantic advance, but Rachael, not trusting the authenticity of her feelings, resists and begins to leave. Deckard stops her and roughly begins to make love to her. She begins to respond, suggesting that she has genuine emotions after all—which perhaps sets her apart, not only from the typical android, but also from the typical femme fatale. Rachael, meanwhile, is extremely innocent and inexperienced (even the experience she does have is largely simulated), which again sets her apart from the usual femme fatale.

In Sebastian’s apartment, Pris asks Sebastian his age. He says he is 25, though he looks much older because of “Methusaleh syndrome,” which causes him to age at an accelerated pace—and clearly giving him reason to sympathize with the replicants and their limited life spans. He is thus unable to pass the medical to emigrate to the off-world colonies. Introduced to Batty by Pris, Sebastian takes Batty to Tyrell’s headquarters, where Tyrell is in bed in his baroque private quarters, trading stocks over the phone. Batty confronts Tyrell and demands to have his longevity extended. “I want more life, fucker,” he says threateningly. Tyrell says it can’t be done. Batty embraces and kisses Tyrell, then kills him by pressing his thumbs into his eye sockets. This moment, of course, has numerous resonances. For example, if Tyrell is seen as Batty’s godlike creator, then Batty becomes a Satanic figure, rebelling against his god. On the other hand, the moment also has the Freudian implications of a son killing his father—the Oedipal suggestions of which are reinforced, though complicated, by the manner of Tyrell’s death, which recalls Oedipus’s putting out of his own eyes after realizing that he killed his father.

After the police find both Tyrell and Sebastian dead, Deckard is dispatched to Sebastian’s building, a decaying version of the historic Bradbury Building[6], where he shoots and kills Pris, but note before she nearly kills him. Batty now arrives, and Deckard shoots at him (and misses) as he bends over the prone Pris. Batty excoriates Deckard for his unsporting attempt at an ambush, asking him, “Aren’t you the good man?” Then follows an extended duel between the two of a sort that might be a classic film climax, except that, as Batty’s question indicates, the usual moral terms of the hero vs. villain confrontation are seriously complicated here. Of course, such confusion is rampant in this film; it is also often a key ingredient of film noir, which provides so much visual inspiration for this film.Batty’s far superior strength and agility give him a clear upper hand in the battle (especially after he cripples Deckard’s right hand by breaking two of his fingers—one for Zhora and one for Pris), and he eventually has Deckard at his mercy, dangling from the edge of the building and about to fall to his death.

However, Batty, who realizes that he himself is on the verge of death due to his built-in expiration date, decides to show mercy by pulling Deckard up to safety. Meanwhile, fighting to retain consciousness, Batty has driven a nail through his own hand to revive himself with pain, but also marking himself as a sort of Christ figure, in addition to a Satan figure. Then again, this film blurs all sorts of boundaries even between presumed opposites. As Batty slowly fades, he famously muses, “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 the rain. Time to die.” He slumps forward, releasing the white dove that he holds in his hand.

Suddenly, Gaff yells up from the street, congratulating Deckard on a job well done. “It’s too bad she won’t live,” he yells. “But then again who does?” Gaff’s remark ostensibly provides a reminder that human beings, too, have a limited life expectancy, though it can also be taken as still another hint that Deckard might be a replicant.

Back at his apartment, Deckard again finds Rachael waiting for him. In response to his questions, she says she loves him and trusts him. As they leave the apartment, planning to run away together, Deckard discovers an origami unicorn on the floor and recalls the echo of Gaff’s last remark. The unicorn suggests that Gaff has been to the apartment, though its significance is muted in this version of the film which lacks Deckard’s early unicorn dream, which this unicorn suggests might have come from an implanted memory, providing the film’s strongest signal that Deckard might be a replicant. Deckard and Rachael leave the apartment. In later versions of the film, they close the door behind them as the film ends, but bringing very little close to their own story. In this version, however, Deckard and Rachael escape to the countryside, while Deckard’s final voiceover reveals that Rachael is special, with no termination date, freeing them to live together happily ever after, Hollywood-style.[7]

Blade Runner is based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by SF legend Philip K. Dick. In many ways, the film is a relatively faithful adaptation of the novel, which features protagonist Rick Deckard as a hunter of runaway androids, though the terms “blade runner” and “replicant” are not used in the novel. However, as detailed by Paul M. Sammon, among others, the adaptation of the book was a long and arduous process. Some of the resultant changes from novel to film include the fact that Dick’s Deckard is married, which makes him seem much less like a film noir protagonist. Several character names are changed, as well. In addition, some of the more interesting aspects of the novel are missing from the film. For example, the title of the book refers to the fact that a nuclear holocaust has virtually wiped out all animal life on earth, so that most “animals” on the planet are now manmade simulations of animals. In contrast, while the world of the film has a vaguely postapocalyptic feel, the reasons for this are not given. Other changes include the presence of technologies such as “mood organs” that Dick’s characters can use to generate artificially induced moods and “empathy boxes” that they can use to experience technologically enhanced empathy with one Wilbur Mercer, part of a bogus religion that allows devotees to share Mercer’s Christlike suffering. It turns out, however, that Mercer is merely an actor whose experiences have been staged. Meanwhile, this fact is revealed on the air by media star Buster Friendly, another major presence in the novel (and a key part of the novel’s satire of the media) who is missing from the film. That Friendly himself turns out (apparently) to be an android also enriches the novel’s blurring of the boundary between human and android.

In short, many of the most interesting and effective aspects of the novel are missing from the film. On the other hand, many of the most important aspects of the film—especially its dialogue with film noir and its powerful overall visual impression—are missing from the novel. Ultimately, the differences between Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner provide some of the most fascinating examples in American culture of the differences in the resources available to the two media of book and film. They also mean that the book and film complement one another in an unusually effective way, bearing out Dick’s own remark that his novel and the film are two halves of a single “meta-artwork.”

On its initial release, Blade Runner barely made back its $28 million budget (more than twice the budget of E.T.)at the box office. The film also won few awards. It was nominated for only two Oscars (in the typical SF categories of art direction and special effects) and won neither. Nevertheless, the film’s special visual effects, though relatively simple by today’s standards, remain some of the most remarkable in SF film—not so much for their technical virtuosity as for their effectiveness in reinforcing the film’s thematic content. The effects were produced by Entertainment Effects Group, a partnership between legendary effects man Douglas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich, who also had an impressive dossier of special visual effects credits, going all the way back to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972) and including work on such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). More recently Yuricich has helped to produce the effects for such films as Event Horizon (1997) and Resident Evil (2002).

Blade Runner has proved to have an ongoing appeal in the more than twenty years since its initial release, buoyed by the 1992 theatrical release of a Director’s Cut version of the film, which has subsequently become the standard version in video release. Blade Runner is one of the most respected—and certainly one of the most influential—SF films in history. It has probably received more attention from academic critics than any other SF film. Most of this attention has to do with the complex look of the film, which many critics have felt to be a quintessential example of postmodern cinema. Meanwhile, the film invites this attention to its visual dimension with its own self-conscious (and postmodern) commentaries on vision and photographic representation. Other aspects of the film (its mixture of genres, its numerous interpretive uncertainties) are postmodern as well. Finally, Blade Runner is important for its serious exploration of numerous political and social issues, making it one of the most politically engaged of all SF films, a genre sometimes criticized for its lack of political content.

Blade Runner represents one of the best examples of mixed genre in all of American film. The film’s use of what is essentially a detective-story plot within a basic science fiction framework is not in itself new, of course, and can be found as early as the robot detective stories and novels of Isaac Asimov in the 1940s and 1950s. This generic combination is, however, relatively new to American film, though elements of this mix can be found in such works as Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973), while the combination of science fiction and detective story had already emerged fully formed in French film as early as Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965). What is particularly effective about the generic hybridity of Blade Runner, however, is the unique extent to which the complex visual texture of the film reinforces the mixture of genres. Thus, the film’s juxtaposition of ultramodern, high-technology devices with images of seedy urban decay visually echoes the combination of science fiction and noir detective fiction.

The effectiveness of this visual mix is enhanced by the fact that the images of an old, rotten (both physically and morally) city are so recognizably filmic, given that they are drawn not simply from detective fiction but directly from the tradition of film noir, one of the central repositories of film imagery in the catalog of American culture. And these generically charged images go well beyond the architecture of the city, to include elements such as clothing and hairstyles, especially in the case of Rachael, who spends most of the time looking as if she has stepped directly out of a noir film from the 1940s. Meanwhile, the video billboards, replicants, and flying cars of Blade Runner are easily recognized as iconic images of science fiction cinema, so that the mixture of science fiction and detective story is inherently embedded in the complex, hybrid look of the film.

The thematic significance of the visual images in Blade Runner is reinforced by the film’s incessant focus on eyes and vision, which also helps to direct attention toward the crucial importance of seeing to the medium of film. The replicants seem to have been programmed with an inherent respect for eyes and the visual, perhaps because their “maker,” Tyrell seems to have poor vision, at least on the evidence of his huge eyeglasses, which can also be taken as a symbol of his shortsightedness in designing the replicants to be “more human than human” but to be treated as less than human. Both Rachael and Pris wear exaggerated eye makeup, thus calling special attention to their eyes. Meanwhile, the replicants seem to regard the eyes as a particular site of human vulnerability, as can be seen from their particular choice of a method for inflicting death by plunging their thumbs into the eye sockets of their victims or in their choice of the eye designer Chew as a weak point where they can begin their penetration of the defenses of the Tyrell Corporation. Meanwhile, as Batty fades into death, his strongest regret seems to be the fact that the memory of all he has seen will now fade into nothingness.

The fact that so much of the film’s content and look are taken from the “private eye” genre reinforces all of this eye imagery, just as it is no coincidence that so many of the detective-story motifs in the film refer specifically to eyes and/or vision. Thus, in the Voight-Kampff test that plays such an important role in the detection of replicants, the examiner looks at a screen that shows a closeup of the eyeball of the subject, seeking to gauge emotional response by looking for “fluctuation of the pupil” and “involuntary dilation of the iris.”

This focus on the eyes of subjects under interrogation resonates with the motif of surveillance that runs throughout Blade Runner. Indeed, one of the central reasons that this Los Angeles seems so disturbingly dystopian is the strong sense that anyone and everyone in the future city is apt to be under official surveillance at any given time, especially by the flying police cars that seem constantly to scan the city’s streets for signs of inappropriate activity. Deckard himself is subject to such surveillance: at one point he is stopped and interrogated by one of the flying police cars as he works undercover on a surface street, while he seems constantly to be shadowed by the enigmatic Gaff as he goes about his work.

Granted, this constant surveillance (consistent with Bryant’s contrast between “cop” and “little people”) does not seem to be particularly effective at keeping order: gangs of apparent mutants roam the street making mischief, while the city has the decadent air of being seeped in crime, much in the manner of the typical urban noir environment. Of course, it may well be that the police have no desire to eradicate crime. After all, the presence of crime gives them the perfect excuse to operate relatively free of oversight, while their extensive program of surveillance ensures that the crime can be managed so that it will not get out of control and become a genuine threat to official power.

On the other hand, the contrast between the seeming omnipotence of the police and the seeming ubiquity of crime is perfectly consistent with the contradictory nature of the film, in which so many elements defy explanation and complete understanding. The very title of the film defies explanation. We never learn why the replicant hunters are called blade runners, and indeed there is no logical explanation. Screenwriter Hampton Fancher discovered the term in an unproduced screenplay (about smugglers of medical supplies) by the legendary William S. Burroughs. The term was then adopted for the movie simply because Fancher and Scott liked the sound of it.

One of the most interesting (and yet nonsensical) motifs in the film involves the Esper sequence, a bit of science fiction detective work that enacts the hybrid genre of Blade Runner, while at the same time commenting upon the medium of film itself, in which high-tech image manipulation has so much to do with what the viewer sees. Via the computerized scanning capabilities of the Esper machine, Deckard is able to tease out an image of Zhora that could never have been seen with the naked eye. On the other hand, fascinating though this sequence might be as an example of self-reflexive cinema, it is absolutely pointless as detective work. The police already have photographs of Zhora on file, and they already know that Leon and Zhora are associated with one another. In short, Deckard learns absolutely nothing from his painstaking extraction of the picture of Zhora in this sequence.

The representation of Blade Runner’s city serves as still another example of the film’s overall interpretive uncertainty. Depicted as an embodiment of postmodern plurality and hybridity, the city is a virtual world’s fair of cultures and styles, and its population is a complex multiethnic stew, making it impossible to reach any final conclusion about the character of the city. Among other things, the city is clearly identified as Los Angeles in the not too distant future, yet the architecture, climate, and other elements of the city seem to have virtually nothing in common with the Los Angeles that we know. Meanwhile, if the city seems simultaneously ultra-modern and old fashioned, it also seems simultaneously crowded and nearly deserted. Teeming crowds of people mill about in the streets, yet Sebastian lives all alone in the Bradbury Building, explaining that he can do so because there is no “housing shortage around here.”

Deckard’s movement through the city from one neighborhood to the next is almost like a simulated world tour, somewhat along the lines of the World Showcase at Disney World’s Epcot Center, in which, oddly enough, the Mexico pavilion includes an Aztec temple (modeled after a real temple at Teotihuacan) that looks a bit like the Tyrell Building of Blade Runner. Of course, the simulated cultural environments of the film’s 2019 Los Angeles are darker and dirtier than the gleaming exhibits at Epcot. In addition, while the World Showcase is laid out in a simple, well-organized fashion that makes it easy to navigate from one simulated national environment to the next, the layout of the Blade Runner city seems incomprehensible. There is no clear path from one ethnic neighborhood to the next and the viewer (like, one suspects, most of the “little people” who inhabit the city) is never able to map his or her position within the vast urban maze that is the city.

A flying car approaches the Tyrell Building.

This inability to map one’s position within the overall system of the city is a perfect example of what the prominent cultural critic Fredric Jameson has identified as the typical disorientation of the individual subject within postmodern society. Indeed, drawing upon the work of urban theorist Kevin Lynch, Jameson specifically compares the difficulty of getting one’s cognitive bearings within the world system of late capitalism to the difficulty of finding one’s way about in the postmodern city—or within individual postmodern buildings, for that matter.

This cognitive confusion is enhanced by fact that the city’s mixture of architectural styles from different periods can occur even within individual buildings. The Tyrell corporate complex (which seems to house the company’s business offices, research laboratories, and manufacturing facilities, as well as Tyrell’s own home all in a single location) is probably the most modern, high-tech setting in the entire film. Yet its pyramid-like architectural style seems to be modeled on that of ancient Mayan or Aztec temples, almost as if to announce that the corporation has gained power over the past, which becomes a cafeteria menu of styles and images from which those with sufficient power and wealth can pick and choose. According to theorists of the postmodern, this kind of incorporation of an older style into a new building is a key characteristic of postmodern architecture, as is the fact that it is often difficult to distinguish the interior from the exterior of the Tyrell building. Thus, when Deckard first encounters Rachael and Tyrell in the corporate complex, they seem to be in a sort of open courtyard, yet Tyrell is then able to darken the room electronically when Deckard says that he needs lower light in order to administer the Voight-Kampff test.

This confusion between old and new and between inside and outside in the Tyrell Building is, of course, entirely appropriate given that the Tyrell Corporation is the focal point for the film’s central interpretive uncertainty—the extreme difficulty of telling the difference between humans and replicants. This central uncertainty, meanwhile, has ramifications that go beyond mere postmodern play. It challenges the very definition of what it means to be human and, among other things, resonates with the entire legacy of racism, historically based on the argument that nonwhite peoples (like the replicants of Blade Runner) are not fully human and therefore do not have the same rights as fully human whites.

To an extent, that the replicants are visually indistinguishable from their masters places them in the tradition of SF films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which the alien Others seem all the more sinister because they are so hard to identify. In Blade Runner,however, the uncertainties go much farther. For one thing, there is the strong possibility that even the protagonist Deckard might be a replicant. For another, even if one could distinguish between the humans and replicants in Blade Runner, the replicants are at least as much victims as evil Others, and it is impossible to identify either side in the human-replicant opposition as unequivocally good or unequivocally evil.

In terms of the film’s political significance, that the replicants are manufactured as property for use as slaves would seem to link them to the legacy of African American slavery, though this connection is also complicated by the fact that all of the replicants we see are white, including the ultra-white Batty, who looks something like a Nazi dream of an Aryan superman. The fact that the replicants seem racially indistinguishable from their masters suggests that the difference between human and replicant is really one of class, rather than race, while the obvious parallel between the white replicants and African American slaves thus asks us to consider whether many of the inequities that we attribute to racism in our society are also really more a matter of class than of race.

Class difference, in fact, is a powerful subtext that underlies virtually every motif in Blade Runner. The future society of the Blade Runner is intensely hierarchical, and in ways for which class difference serves as the crucial model. Thematically, the human-replicant opposition is the most important of such hierarchies in the film, though it is clear that class hierarchies operate within the human population as well. For example, emigration to the space colonies is clearly a sort of privilege, and most of those left on earth seem to be among the underprivileged group who, for reasons of race, economics, or genetic inferiority, are not able to qualify for emigration. Among those left on earth, there are clear hierarchies as well, as can be seen in Bryant’s description of the society as divided into “cop” and “little people.” This suggestion seems to suggest the operation of a police state in which the hierarchies are matters of raw physical power, rather than the more subtle class-based hierarchies of capitalism. However, it is also clear that Bryant’s statement applies only to a certain working-class segment of the population (including Deckard), for whom joining the police is the means to rise in social stature. And this rise occurs largely because those who become cops have agreed to act in defense of the real upper classes (such as the wealthy Tyrell) and thus indirectly to gain some of the advantages of upper-class status.

Even the postmodern mixture of styles and genres for which Blade Runner is so well known is not simply thrown together in random fashion. In terms of genre, science fiction clearly takes precedence over the detective story. In terms of style, the city is laid out via a process Scott referred to as “layering”; the more modern aspects of the city are built on top of an older, decaying base, as when huge, brilliant video billboards are built upon the sides of dark, looming buildings. Even when the new and the old are thoroughly intermixed, as in the Tyrell complex, they remain hierarchical, the new maintaining a sort of imperialistic power over the old. Moreover, as critic David Desser points out, the whole city is laid out in terms of a vertical stratification that mirrors the class structure of the society.At the street level, the level of the working classes, the city is crowded, old, dirty, and impoverished (images from detective fiction or film noir). Higher up, in the realm of flying cars and penthouses, the city is affluent, ultramodern, and sparsely populated, filled with images from science fiction.

The thematic and visual hierarchies of Blade Runner suggest that a crucial theme of the film is capitalism itself, which inherently creates class differences and in fact depends upon their continuation for its survival. Indeed, the film goes out of its way to call attention to the theme of capitalism, particularly in its portrayal of Tyrell, who participates in the long SF film tradition of the mad scientist (Victor Frankenstein is a particularly obvious predecessor), but who (by his own declaration, at least) is far less interested in advancing scientific knowledge than he is in turning a tidy profit. Thus, he states that the main goal of his company is “commerce,” while the only scene in the film in which we see him in a private moment shows him engaged not in speculation about the nature of universe but in trading stocks. All of the mind-boggling scientific achievements of Tyrell and his minions, such scenes tell us, are harnessed strictly in the interests of business, a suggestion that, by extension, reminds us of the centrality of profit-making to virtually every aspect of life in our own world. Then again, all of the major questions raised by Blade Runner really pertain more to our own world than to its fictional world of the future—a characteristic the film shares with most of the best literary science fiction.


Desser, David. “The New Eve: The Influence of Paradise Lost and Frankenstein on Blade Runner. Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Ed. Judith B. Kerman. 2nd ed. University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. 53–65.

Sammon, Paul M. Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. HarperPrism, 1996.

Stiller, Andrew. “The Music in Blade Runner.” Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Ed. Judith B. Kerman. 2nd ed. University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. 196–200.


[1] This discussion is taken largely from the chapter on Blade Runner in my book Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture (Praeger, 2006).

[2] Music is particularly important in Blade Runner. For a succinct discussion of music in the films, see Stiller.

[3] Dick’s original novel is set in San Francisco, in 1992.

[4] In late versions of the film, Deckard here experiences a dream-like reverie concerning a unicorn, more extensive in the “Final Cut” than in the “Director’s Cut.” This dream also adds weight to the notion that Deckard might be a replicant, a suggestion that is much stronger in these later cuts. In the 2018 sequel, Blade Runner 2049, Ford returns as Deckard, but the film leaves his status as a replicant ambiguous. The central “blade runner” character in this film (played by Ryan Gosling) is unequivocally identified as a replicant, though.

[5] This identification, of course, partakes of the tradition of representations of the Biblical figure of Salome as an Oriental temptress, which figures most prominent in the noir tradition in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

[6] One might expect the naming of this building to be a reference to the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. One would, however, be wrong. The Bradbury Building, constructed in 1893, is a real building in Los Angeles. It’s use in Blade Runner not only locates the film’s crucial last scenes in a specific place, but also provides a further link to film noir. This building was used as a location in a number of noir films, including The Unfaithful (1947), Shockproof (1949), D.O.A. (1949), and I, The Jury (1953)—not to mention Chinatown.

[7] The film’s final footage is a helicopter shot of some remote mountains, suggesting that Deckard and Rachael have escape there. This scene was actually surplus footage from the famous opening helicopter shot of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), loaned to Scott for his use by Kubrick.