With Blade Runner 2049 hitting this October, FreakSugar contributor Tim Avers discusses why the original Blade Runner film belongs in the cyberpunk genre.
“Aren’t you the good man?” –Roy Batty, Blade Runner
On the verge of the theatrical release of Blade Runner 2049, we will definitely be talking a lot more about both that film and Ridley Scott’s original. Based on Phillip K. Dick’s ingenious and quirky “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” Blade Runner has long been the subject of argument in the community that holds it aloft as their seminal film. Environmental ruin. Genetically-driven economic disparity. Absolute ethical equivalency. But some people say it’s missing some elements of cyberpunk and insist that it belongs, rather, to the future noir genre. With 25 year’s reflection the cyberpunk seems to have finally won over future noir in Blade Runner – the decade’s definitive cyberpunk genre film. Here are some thoughts on why.
By the end of Chinatown, probably the best pure noir work of late 20th Century cinema, Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes seems to have nothing left. The world is broken and he has no way of fixing it – “…it’s Chinatown.” But Jake remains Jake – the guy who tried to do right in a bad world.
Over the years my thoughts on Blade Runner have evolved a lot. I initially saw it as a cyberpunk film, later thought of it as strictly future noir, and eventually returned it see it as cyberpunk. It all has to do with two incidental and troubling decisions in the film’s narrative.
I’ve always had a problem with Blade Runner‘s “love” scene. The relationship between Harrison Ford’s Deckard and Sean Young’s replicant Rachael is a troubling one, more so if one doesn’t consider Deckard to be a replicant. If Deckard is a human he clearly rapes Rachael, which is mortifying. If he’s a replicant he may have insufficient emotional experience to handle seduction and might instead substitute aggression. Regardless, it’s a rougher scene to get through today than it ever was. Likewise, it’s the first time most of us saw Ford do something really dastardly on screen and in retrospect it’s a notable performance.
The other incidental choice is by Rutger Hauer’s replicant Roy Batty. A lot has been said in recent years about Roy actually being the “hero,” if one can be found, in Blade Runner. But in the scene at the Tyrell archeology when Roy confronts his maker, Eldon Tyrell, played devilishly and delightfully by the late Joe Turkel, Roy has a second choice to make. Having killed Tyrell, Roy chases William Sanderson’s pathetic J. F. Sebastian through the suite apparently killing him. Sebastian is perhaps the story’s only innocent, basically a genius on the autism spectrum with a genetic disorder that will likely end his life early. Roy knows that he and Daryl Hannah’s Pris are soon to die as well and that Deckard is out to kill them even sooner. So why kill Sebastian? Perhaps primal rage? If so is this crime of passion forgivable? I don’t think it is.
A lot of people see Roy’s final act, saving Deckard’s life, as a humane one but I disagree, and this shades his killing of Sebastian further. Roy is meticulous in his pursuit of Deckard. While Deckard is climbing a bookcase in a desperate effort to simply get away from the seemingly crazed replicant, Batty is gleefully taunting him from the outside of the building. At this point he’s covered so much ground that he has to know Deckard’s path is to the rooftop where the blade runner will try to escape. “Tears in Rain” isn’t simply the dying declaration of a born-to-kill biomechanical creature. Roy has engineered this moment – perhaps one of the greatest soliloquies in science fiction history – as his legacy. The sword that is Roy Batty can’t be reforged, but he can propel a splinter of himself forward in time inside Deckard’s head.
Blade Runner is most definitely about the evil that men and machines do. I think it’s naive to call it future noir simply because it lacks people with robotic arms or a computerized virtual reality. In the darkest noir Jake Gittes remains Jake but in Blade Runner even with Rachael’s desperate end-act return to Deckard, nobody will ever be the same and nobody will ever be “the good man” – whether it’s a man or his biomechanical instrument.
That’s the missing piece that finally proves Blade Runner is the essence of cyberpunk.
Blade Runner 2049 hits theaters October 6th.