What makes us human? That is a question pondered and speculated on by philosophers since the dawn of mankind. It’s a question often explored by science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and the central theme of many of his stories including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for the 1982 film Blade Runner. The film’s story of human versus androids (known as replicants in the film) offers up a dystopian futuristic setting where basic morality is lost amongst the over-crowded landscape. Blade Runner is stylistically brilliant. It creates an entirely believable world within its own context. The dark and dreary landscape, androids more human than real people, and the disaffected performance from star Harrison Ford nearly makes up for the lack of a truly compelling story. Director Ridley Scott’s film is often hailed as a classic, but 30 years after its initial release it’s hard to ignore some of its obvious flaws.
There is no doubt Blade Runner creates a unique world and asks questions that are difficult to answer. At the center of it all is the question of whether the replicants deserve life. They’re created in the exact image of humans. They are stronger than humans, able to figure out complex problems, and possess intelligence equal to their own creators. Because of all of this, they also have developed some basic, primitive emotional responses. Due to their programmed four-year lifespan, they only live long enough to develop the emotional maturity of a two or three-year-old child. It’s a dangerous trait for beings that have been programmed to fight our wars for us. Four of these replicants have escaped the “off-world” planet they worked on and have returned to Earth. Their goal is to find their creator and force him to expand their lifespan.
It’s the job of the so-called blade runners to root out the human imposters and “retire” (a nicer word for execute) them. Rick Deckard (Ford), the best of the best in terms of blade runners, has been charged with the task of taking out the four rogue replicants. We really don’t know anything of Deckard’s life, other than his expertise at spotting replicants. This is by design. Deckard’s lack of meaning in his life stands in stark contrast with the replicants’ desire to live. The rogue replicant leader, Roy (Rutger Hauer), wants something real. He wants his life to mean more than fighting battles on the violent off-world colonies. He is also deeply in love with fellow replicant Pris (Daryl Hannah).
Roy seems to be a very intelligent being. He questions things about life. He has a deeper understanding of his surroundings than any of the depicted humans seem to. But because of his emotional immaturity, he can’t reconcile his feelings with his actions. He lashes out violently when he doesn’t get what he wants. Still, it’s hard to not have some sympathy for him and Pris. She’s like a lost child discovering the world for the first time, though she’s also prone to the same violent tendencies as Roy. At one point in the film she quotes the famous statement of French philosopher René Descartes: “I think therefore I am.” Surely Descartes could not have imagined artificial intelligence when he pondered that which makes us human, but the advent of it fills the statement with ambiguity.
Deckard has lived his life denying that ambiguity. He refers to any replicant as “it,” destroying them without hesitation. He doesn’t give it a second thought until he meets Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant so human she is unaware of her own true nature. In a way, Deckard is the biggest weakness of the film. Since we don’t know anything about him, it is hard to want anything for him. We don’t even know if he has really learned anything by the film’s end, or if he just wants what he wants, without considering anything beyond that.
The Blade Runner 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition four-disc set includes five different versions of the film: the original 1982 theatrical version, the 1982 European cut, the 1992 director’s cut, the 2007 “final cut,” and an early workprint version. As I watched the different versions for the first time, I was hoping for some revelatory differences that would profoundly change the film. It didn’t happen. Truthfully the film is essentially the same no matter which version you watch. The biggest change is that the original theatrical version contains Deckard’s voiceover narration (lazily read by Harrison Ford) and a slightly expanded ending. Though the narration is a source of contention and debate among fans, I don’t really have a problem with it. The delivery is slightly corny, coming off like something out of 1940s film noir, but it does provide some additional insight into the story. Otherwise the changes are negligible.