Blade Runner: The Final Cut simply refuses to fade into the vast catalogue of forgotten film history. Its persistence as film’s pedestal sci-fi owing to its innovative and intelligent contemplation over ontological questions of authenticity and artificiality as they pertain to a rapidly, and terrifyingly, techno-advanced, mechanized, global future society.
Set in Los Angeles in the year 2019, Blade Runner depicts, through its neo-noir aesthetic, a dystopian future where humans have created their own robotic slave-race known as Replicants. In one sense the Replicants act as soldiers, in a time of hyper-universality on “Off-world” human colonies of other planets. Four dangerous Replicants have returned to earth in the hope of confronting the corporation responsible for their very questionable existence: Tyrrell Corporation. Alerted to their illegal activities in a hyper-modern police state, Blade Runner Unit enlist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to find and “retire” (kill) the four who are merely desperate to prolong what they think are their “lives”.
That the film is set in Los Angeles is far from incidental. Although New York is America’s foremost “global” city with regards to economic and cultural growth/wealth, LA is its “expansive” counterpart in that its spatial development and the sheer scale of its urban planning exemplifies the artificial “constructedness” that the film is concerned with in the first instance. As such, the dark, seemingly boundless sprawl of the dystopian LA landscape operates in the film as a psychogeographical reflection of the labyrinthine, almost indistinguishable cerebrally sound constructs of the Replicants’ cognitive minds.
Beyond their declared “at least equal intelligence to the genetic engineers who created them”, the Replicants, also described as “virtually identical” to humans, are suggestively “evolved” rather than “constructed” beings. The implication of their proverbial “evolution” affords the Replicants with organic rather than robotic capabilities, creating from the outset a distinct atmosphere of ambiguity; blurring the boundaries between the human/non-human attributes they are imbued with, rendering them, in some advanced cases, as liminal beings even unto themselves. Furthermore, following the “bloody mutiny” on Off-world colonies, Replicants have been “declared illegal on earth, under penalty of death”. In light of a Derridean comprehension of binary oppositions the very notion of “death” here suggests “life”, providing further substance to the idea that the Replicants are “living” beings. Moreover, the final two sentences of the prologue to the film read; “This was not called execution. It was called retirement.” The two sentences appear onscreen isolated from one another and from the paragraphs that came before. In using “called” twice in such close proximity Scott emphasizes the semiotic construction of a concept based upon two otherwise abstract things. That is to say that we (human viewers) comprehend the action as one thing and not another through a system of signifiers and signifieds that links the action to its name. This subtle note at the outset is designed to make the viewer think through the implications of the Symbolic Order itself, and therefore the constructedness of everything human, including something that mistakenly considered natural: language. The reminder so early on that almost everything is constructed and/or performed already alludes to Scott’s overarching provocative contention.
But what exactly does it mean to be “living” and where does that leave the boundary between legitimate “born” human beings and illegal “created” Replicants? For the purposes of distinguishing between the two (primarily so as not to accidentally “retire” a human), the Blade Runner Unit have created a test that is “designed to provoke emotional response” from its recipients, measuring their levels of empathy through indicators such as response time and pupil dilation. The only obstacle here being the fear that after a few years they would – in line with the aforementioned process of evolution – “develop their own emotional responses” and it is, for this reason, that their life-span is restricted to a short four years. Moreover, the more advanced and indeed “experiment” Replicants of which Rachael (Sean Young) is one, are given greater access to the concept of humanity through programmed memories which act as a “cushion” for their own subjectivity helping them to believe they are human. It is at this moment in the film that the true nature of every character, including Deckard himself, is brought into question.
Ignoring the extensive implications of this revelation, Deckard denies Rachael’s inference when she asks him if he has ever taken the test himself. Clearly hurt by the determination that she is a Replicant, implanted with memories from Tyrrell’s niece and believing them to be her own, Rachael sheds a solitary tear, displaying clear and unmistakable human emotion. Following this display the two become romantically involved which, if he is human and she is not, is dodgy ethical ground at best, but, if (as Scott certainly intended it to be) they are both Replicants who merely believe themselves to be human is an equally consensual union. The inclusion of this scene operates as reiterative of the Replicants’ ability to experience human desire and also to provide a strong ethical questioning of the resultant actions of a Replicant who considers him/herself to be human.
Like Deckard and Rachael, Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) are “coupled” Replicants, only in this case they know themselves to be so. The difference here is that along with their knowledge of what they truly are comes another human desire: the will to live. Their mission is to have their lives extended at any cost, their fear of death very human indeed. But it is Roy who goes to see Dr Tyrrell, leaving Pris to defend their newly acquired “home”. His presence at Tyrrell Corporation is met with a combination of kindness and cruelty as Dr Tyrrell lovingly refers to him as the Prodigal Son returned. At this moment Roy becomes Jesus to Dr Tyrrell’s God and Roy’s anger towards his maker results in a murderous crime of passion – yet another decidedly human action. Dissatisfied and disillusioned with the God who created him, Roy returns home to find Pris has bled to death, and Scott lingers on her blood to reiterate yet again the very human qualities of the Replicants.
In the final showdown between Roy and Deckard, Roy makes an ultimate sacrifice of himself, accepting the inevitability of his life cycle. Mirroring his surroundings, like the rain that gushes into the house, Roy is in many ways an organic being trapped into a constructed environment. As he forces a nail through his hand and then his own head through a tiled wall, he further blurs the boundaries between natural and unnatural, removing the confines and limitations that one necessarily holds over the other. In this way the final scenes of the film move towards breaking down Derridean binary oppositions, suggesting that there are grey areas and ultimately that humans are the result of both organic evolution and the extraneous influences and input that are responsible, at least in part, for their existence.
The Directors’ Cut (and with very minor differences this Final Cut) in particular, is the version of this film that led to the discussion surrounding whether or not Deckard was human or Replicant. Ridley Scott has himself professed that Deckard is a Replicant and if we take this reading at its word then he is, by his own admittance, justified by the system: “Replicants are like any other machine: they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” Ultimately serving the system and its self-perpetuating myth surrounding the significance of authenticity versus the threat of artificiality, Deckard is the exemplary product of a well governed police state; unwittingly serving its needs to his own detriment; ignorant of its ideology and only able to see through its constructedness so far as it allows him to. If we however, do not take Scott at his word and allow Deckard to remain ambiguously human then the film does not fail, it merely suspends itself and its determination in the liminal space that it so brilliantly creates.
Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre. Originally published in an Astor e-newsletter in 2010.