Confronting Blade Runner

The key to BLADE RUNNER is that the hero and the villain swap roles halfway through the film.

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American literary critic Harold Bloom said the purpose of reading literature is to confront greatness. What I intend to do with the “Confronting…” series of blog posts is share some of the great stories I’ve encountered, regardless of format, and discuss why I think they’re great. I’d also like to hear your opinions, pro and con. My angle is as storyteller, not literary critic. I want to reflect on stories that have had lasting, repeated enjoyment for me, and understand why, so I can improve as a writer.

I’m going to start with the favorite film of my high school years, Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (1982).

If you were a teenager in the 80s, as I was, you probably found Blade Runner a stunning experience. I am 50 now, and I still remember walking out of that theater in far North Dallas in 1982, blinking in the sunlight, and wondering, “What the hell did I just see?”

It wasn’t just visually delicious. It wasn’t just the gorgeous soundtrack, or the charismatic villains. Something profound happens in that movie, but at 16, I couldn’t quite see it. I just knew it was there.

Here’s what I think keeps BLADE RUNNER great, three decades later — as Ezra Pound said, literature is news that stays news — and what I can learn from it now, as a storyteller.

The key to BLADE RUNNER is that the hero and the villain swap roles halfway through the film.

We start with Rick Deckard, reluctant cop, a specialist in hunting down and retiring (killing) replicants, known in the LA street slang as a “Blade Runner.”

We watch him confront his inner conflict as he hunts the replicant escapees down, one by one.

What is his inner conflict? He doesn’t want to kill replicants because he sees them as human, in all the ways that matter.

Halfway through the film — give or take — we start caring less for the self-loathing Deckard, and more for the direct, energetic Roy Batty. He confronts his creator and — contrary to multiple director’s cuts — says what we’d all like to say to God, at some point, when facing the death of loved ones or ourselves:

“I want more life, fucker.”

When the god of biomechanics won’t give him an extension, he doesn’t mope and drink and plink a piano — he pushes in Tyrell’s eyeballs and crushes his head.

In the end, it is Batty who recognizes his universal humanity, his connection with Deckard and doves and the rain and all that cool stuff, and saves Deckard’s life.

Batty is the hero of Blade Runner, not Deckard.

This hero reversal is probably why it wasn’t a commercial success. It was the 27th most popular American film of 1982, earning only a $27 million domestic gross in initial release against a budget of $28 million.

And yet, it became a cult classic. I’ve bought it in VHS, DVD, and streaming formats.

I’d argue that it’s a classic not because of the dizzying elements of ubiquitous corporate encroachment, nods to film noir, haunting soundtrack, Biblical-flood-as-endless-rain in LA, and speculations on gutterspeak — all fine details that support the story — but because we are tricked, and tricked nicely, into first rooting for the hero, and in the end, rooting for the villain.

I think for most moviegoers, this resulted in moral confusion, not pleasure. For weirdos like me, it was a revelation: The bad guy doesn’t think of himself as a bad guy. In some cases, the bad guy has a point.

I’d argue that if the producers wanted to make BLADE RUNNER a commercial success, and we had a time machine to go back to 1981 and make the necessary changes, the fix would be this:

They should reshoot the first half of the film from Batty’s perspective. Show him and his team crash landing on Earth, show him losing friends one at a time, until he finally has the chance kill his nemesis, the cunning Deckard — and, in his final breaths, show why he chooses not to, in a celebration of life itself.

In either form, Blade Runner would remain great. But in my remake, it wouldn’t confuse the audience.

Thoughts?

Chime in below. Thanks.

2 thoughts on “Confronting Blade Runner”

  1. I don’t know that I’ve met anyone who didn’t love Blade Runner. That probably tells you what a bubble I live in. But I’ve never thought about the “hero” switching before. I think you’re exactly right.

    Trying to come up with some other examples of this- in the original version of this story (Shelley’s Frankenstein), there is some sympathy evoked for the monster, and I think that’s what saves it from being just another monster story. That’s where the depth comes from, and it’s done even more powerfully in Blade Runner. It probably has something to do with splitting up the evil between the overtly callous creator (worse than Dr. Frankenstein) and the conflicted killer (who is far better than the one-dimensional mob).

    Note that this switch you’ve recognized only works well if you’ve already absorbed the film noir ethos: the dirty, jaded hero who is suffering because his job is morally broken. I’ve observed this: an ingenue watching Blade Runner without having that experience does not identify with Deckard, so he isn’t the hero of the first half- he’s just another monster, and the replicants are innocent victims. And yet the film still works, because of all its other virtues.

    Have you seen Ghost in the Machine? How does it compare? I wasn’t one of the early fans of the manga/anime, but I’m interested to see whether the live-action version is any good.

    By the way (pet peeve time), why aren’t there ever any good geniuses in the stories we tell? Really smart characters are either evil, or they’re stupid in every way but one (e.g. Big Bang Theory). I get so sick of this anti-intellectual trope. I personally know some geniuses whose only flaws are anxiety, self-criticism, and trying too hard. It would be a welcome change to see some of that in a popular movie. But no- the flatter a character is, the better. Can we go lower than one-dimensional? Is there such a thing as 0.5D? Or -1D?

    PS: I was underwhelmed when I read this line: “The key to BLADE RUNNER is that the hero changes halfway through the film.” … Well, of course- any story without character development would be sorely lacking. What’s the big deal? I’m laughing at myself, now.

    1. That’s an interesting point — that the unschooled see Deckard as just another monster, because (for example) he shoots a woman in the back, repeatedly.

      I also like your point about Frankenstein — what’s broadly considered the first sci-fi story. The monster is more sympathetic (and more talkative) in the novel than in most film versions. (Though I can’t think of the monster now without hearing ‘putting oN tHe RitZ!’)

      I haven’t seen the new Ghost in the Shell yet ( Ghost in the Machine was our high school era’s best Police album :). I saw the anime version in 1995 at a theater, and frankly didn’t get it, at least not the way it was intended. I just saw it as more Japanese-men-afraid-of-women stuff, and didn’t enjoy it.

      VERY good point re the anti-intellectual trend in popular fiction/film/TV, and frankly, the entire country’s culture. Trump’s election is the pinnacle of that movement. Smart people aren’t just confusing — they can’t be trusted. Intelligence is evil. And so we have a semi-literate, profoundly ignorant man in the captain’s chair. My hope is, his whole anti-science, wall building nationalism will be just a blip in history. But who knows. Until more than 1/3 of young people vote, nothing’s going to change.

      And finally, HA! Didn’t realize how what I’d said could be misunderstood that way. You’re exactly right! I should’ve said “the hero and the villain swap roles,” or something like that.

      What do you charge for copy editing?

      Rick (mobile)

      >

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