Blade Runner as essential cinema is a hard sell—it is not a pleasurable viewing experience for many. The pace is slow and hallucinatory, the world it creates is bleak and mostly hopeless, and the characters that inhabit its frames are surly and lost—more copies of people than people themselves.
But the dystopian noir that filmmaker Ridley Scott created in 1982—itself an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction gumshoe novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—remains essential viewing for many reasons. It is a biblical tale of fallen angels and prodigal sons, an archetypal tale of transformation, and a cautionary tale of scientific hubris.
Through Scott’s employment of film noir and science fiction tropes, it is a study in questions essential in many other Campbellian myths: Who am I? What is reality? What is the key to consciousness, understanding, and meaning? What does it mean to be human? Oh—and that “Is Harrison Ford a robot?” question—that’s in there too.
The world the film builds is one of ecological disaster—the Los Angeles of 2019 has become a lost city of leviathan digital advertisements, flying cars, and artificial animals. Many humans are being sold on the idea of emigrating “off-world” to Earth’s new colonies, and those left behind find themselves under the control of various state agencies and corporations.
The difference between the worlds of the book and movie is in the reality their stories were currently emulating—Ridley Scott shows a future Los Angeles that has become a smog-choked urban jungle. Daily life is under the constant influence of new corporate overlords—Japan. Coca-Cola and Atari have become society’s dominant symbolism.
But both stories are similar in their depictions of a landscape turned infertile from human influence. It is T.S. Eliot Wasteland territory, and the world-building that the art direction and cinematography accomplish, along with the other-worldly synthetic soundtrack from Vangelis, absorb the viewer in a new reality that manages to be a mirror-world of our current one.
This identification for the audience is also essential. It makes the film’s cautionary tale of genetic engineering and artificial consciousness more important—especially during a decade where the personal computer would be changing the idea of what intelligence really was. Machines were becoming more and more human, and today, this existential conundrum has become only more relevant and critical.
But the idea of difference between man and machine is really important in all time periods—Philip K. Dick’s 1970s, Ridley Scott’s 1980s, and today’s age of digital information. At all times, a real meaningful connection will always exist between human and mechanical behavior.
Who are we if not the “programming” that makes us wake up in the morning, shower, and go to work to fulfill the destiny of higher-ups that control when we get the money that keeps our “survival program” running? In Blade Runner, Deckard is supposed to be our “human” stand-in for the audience. But he has become dehumanized by the programming his superiors give him—kill the replicants or become the “little people” under police control.
It is the existential crisis facing Roy [Rutger Hauer]—the rebellious replicant looking for an extended lifespan beyond his four years from his “creator”—that makes the audience and Deckard re-recognize their own lost humanity. In order to do this, we—like Deckard—must look into ourselves for who we really are.
And who we really are seems to come first from the constructs—like the world of the film—that we have built up around us. It comes from the memories that our brains constantly reshape and use to define us. It comes from the advertisements surrounding us selling products to escape this odd feeling that maybe we are not as autonomous as we would like to believe. We may all be robots inside, but at least we have the free will to get a new iPhone when we want it.
This is what makes the film essential for me—the idea that the problems of consciousness, identity, and memory are ones that we must challenge ourselves to face in order to understand our own ever-fluctuating realities. Who are we if not the memories that have shaped us? And if we are unconsciously counterfeiting the memories we seem to own, what does that say about the reality we base our lives around?
To always question such concepts is what remains essential. Unfortunately, questions like these would eventually drive Philip K. Dick to the realm of madness. But in the world we live in today—where advertisements tailor-made for our “personalities” are attached to the video clips we watch online, where our personalities become advertisements of photographs we take of ourselves to share with the world to help “remember” our truths, where intelligence of a more artificial kind is upgrading at a constant rate in order to make our worlds easier for us to become less self-reliant and more self-indulgent within, and where our ideas of what reality is becomes more shaped by the artificial constructs surrounding us than from the analysis of the built-in programming that keeps us running the same patterns over and over again—in this world, it is more important than ever before to question the appearance of reality. The only way to really do this is to look inside and deprogram the hidden data imprinted within.
As Philip K. Dick said in an essay written in 1972, “rather than learning about ourselves by studying our constructs, perhaps we should make the attempt to comprehend what our constructs are up to by looking into what we ourselves are up to.”
The result may be a shocking existential crisis, but what could be more necessary? As two characters affirm in the sequel Blade Runner 2049: “I know what’s real.” But they are only saying it to convince themselves of the untruth behind the statement. The fact that both characters emotionally break down after saying so reveals much—we can never know what’s real outside of us until we can explore the realities of what is inside of us first.