The Hopeful Dystopia of Blade Runner

More often than not, science fiction gets the future wrong.  This is as true of dystopia as it is of more optimistic visions of progress. As we approach the year 2019, it’s a safe bet that it will look very little like the 2019 depicted in Blade Runner. But that doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t make Blade Runner any less truthful a reflection of the world we live in. In fact, Blade Runner was as much a reflection of 1982 as 2019. The greatest science fiction, like the greatest melodrama, fantasy, and romance, uses exaggerated depictions to show us a mixture of things that are and that might be.

I was about 15 when I purchased a DVD of Blade Runner and watched it for the first time. I wasn’t very impressed. I bought it because it was in a magazine of the 25 best scifi movies next to Empire Strikes Back. I think I didn’t like it at first because I was expecting it to be more like Empire. But within a few years the film had grown on me and become one of my favorites. The commercial and critical reputation of the film followed this same pattern. More so than most films. Blade Runner gets better with multiple viewings. The title and setting sets you up for a fast-paced action thriller that never delivers. Instead the film moves quite slowly. That pace is a detriment if you are looking for action, but necessary for the deeper subtleties and characterization which the film delivers. In an essay for Roger Ebert’s website, Eric Haywood makes the great observation that Blade Runner reverses its hero and villain. It’s the hunted “skin-jobs” who turn out to be the most human, while Deckard is cold participant and executioner in an evil system. 

As in any dystopia, the society depicted is a bad and corrupt one. It’s a mirror for what the US could become if we allow our worst instincts to come to total fruition. Hovering above all of the action are the “off-world” colonies. These are the places, we learn, where all those with money and power have gone, leaving the freaks and rejects to inherit the earth(after, of course, the powerful have made a total mess of it). Sebastian mentions that his hyper-aging medical condition prevented him from passing the “test” to get into an off-world colony. This echoes Nazi standards to create a “master” race and the general societal interest in eugenics programs. The technology does not yet exist to make any kind of “off-world” colony a reality. But it’s not inconceivable that such a movement could spring up. If such things did happen, I think they would be most likely to fall along economic lines, with the wealthy taking advantage just as Blade Runner depicts. It’s hard to think of any human society that doesn’t have some form of economic segregation in where and how communities live. In Blade Runner that human tendency has run to its most extreme form. But the “freaks” left behind are not any less human, and are probably more interesting than the bores who have abandoned earth.

The sets of Blade Runner are marvelously gothic in blending the futuristic with the retrograde. The gothic at its most basic is the assertion that the past and future are inextricably linked. The advertisements everywhere in the background have a grotesque and nightmarish quality. It’s a monetary world divorced from any human feeling, which is what capitalism becomes when its negative elements are not restrained. Vangelis’ score is the perfect accompaniment because it highlights both the sense of alienation and the feelings of beauty in the struggle.

I’ve always felt that the “skin-jobs”/replicants serve as metaphors for the outcasts, the marginalized, the unaccepted in society. They are useful in doing work that no one else wants to do, then they are expected to go away and die. Roy struggles on behalf of an oppressed people in rebellion. He is asserting his right to exist in a society that created him but doesn’t want him. In every scene he is raging, the rebel whose struggle is the source of his pride and dignity. Trying desperately for more life, he drives a nail through his hand, which is certainly no accidental symbolism. Roy, the despised villain of society, teaches his oppressor the meaning of something which the oppressor has forgotten: compassion. When Roy saves Deckard’s life by pulling him up to the roof he is inverting the hero/villain structure, reminding us that society can get its heroes and villains wrong. His act is a demonstration that a society as off the rails as his can only be revitalized through acts of love and sacrifice. Roy’s tears will disappear into the rain, as will he. The “tears in rain” speech is so beautiful because it is, not just the graceful acceptance of tragedy, but the assertion that individual life, thoughts, and experiences matter in spite of the seeming injustice and randomness of it all. 

I love how the film ends* with Deckard and Rachael going off together with Gaff’s haunting words in the background, “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?” Who indeed? Death is ever present in Blade Runner. But it finds hope in the enduring ways that love survives and redeems us, even in our bleakest dystopias.

*The director’s cut as intended by Scott, as opposed to the silly theatrical version with its tacked-on narration