Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Counting electric sheep

Okay, so the one or two of you who actually care about these things are wondering what “perfectly good topic” I put off last week because of the passing of the legendary Ingmar Bergman. Well, here it is. It came to my attention a few weeks that this summer marks 25 years since the release of Ridley Scott’s great movie Blade Runner. Now that’s what I call a perfectly good topic.

Scott (no relation) is one of those directors who always get me excited when I hear he has a new movie coming out. And yet, as a director, he nearly seems to have multiple personality disorder. As I have noted before, when a new Ridley Scott movie comes out, there is always a bit of suspense as to which Ridley Scott we will get. We are always hoping for the cool and masterful sci-fi specialist who has given us classics like Blade Runner and Alien. Or the great war movie director that he showed he could be with Black Hawk Down. Or, barring that, then at least the character-driven storyteller who has given us such dramas as the neo-noir Someone to Watch Over Me or the stirring sea adventure White Squall or the twisty con man flick Matchstick Men. But sometimes we get the competent but cloying filmmaker who makes epic period pieces like Kingdom of Heaven and (and I know well that I am in the minority on this) his Oscar-winning Gladiator. At worst, he gives us embarrassing-to-watch stuff like Legend, featuring Tom Cruise as a jungle nature boy fighting Tim Curry as the devil. Another place I am in the minority is that I think that Scott (no relation) can direct a darned good romantic comedy. I seem to be the only filmgoer on the planet who was captivated by A Good Year. (What are the odds that so many people could get it wrong?)

Blade Runner was only Scott’s third feature film as a director. It followed his well-received debut The Duellists, which featured Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as feuding Napoleonic cavalry officers, and the monster hit Alien. As a rule, I have never been one to go see the same film multiple times, no matter how much I like it. But I went to see Alien a second time fairly soon after the first time—just so I could watch my friend Eric jump at all the tense and shock moments. But, even though the second time I knew what was going to happen, I still jumped at all the same moments. That is the sign of masterful director of horror movies, which Alien at heart really was, more than a science fiction one. So expectations were high three years later when Scott (no relation) came out with another ostensible sci-fi flick. But Blade Runner was quite different from Alien. It wasn’t about shocks and jumps and monsters that go boo. It imagined a future world (set in the ever-nearing year 2019) that seemed quite foreign and yet very plausible. It was a world where it always seemed to be night and raining and the world, at least in Los Angeles, seemed over-crowded and multi-cultural to an extent that would have Lou Dobbs running for an underground bunker. And style-wise, everything seemed to have gone retro, conveniently enough for set and costume designers working on what was essentially an update to the old films noirs.

This silver anniversary for the film was brought to my attention a few weeks ago (as so many things are) by a segment on On the Media, broadcast by National Public Radio. In the piece, reporter Philip Martin, through various interviews including sound bites from actors Rutger Hauer and Edward James Olmos, explored the movie as an allegory for racism. The plot, which involves the assignment of the titular blade runner, played by Harrison Ford, to track down and terminate four replicants—artificial humans created to be slave labor on other planets. Martin and his various interviewees found no shortage of parallels between the film’s story and real-life racial relations to this very day. Of course, a viewer at the time would have to have been pretty dense to miss the theme of slavery in the movie, but personally I never actually saw the comparison between the replicants and, say, slavery in America as a very exact one. To me, the story fit more in the category of technology gone wrong—a theme in movies that has been explored in these pages before. It is essentially the story of Prometheus, who dared to use new technology (in his case fire) and got punished by the gods for his trouble. The quintessential 19th and 20th century updates to this myth were Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein (full title: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus) and the numerous movies adapted from it. And what were the replicants in Blade Runner if not imagined 21st century Frankenstein monsters.

The irony, of course, was that Frankenstein’s “monster” was not really a monster at all but rather the unwilling victim of a vain scientist’s hubris. For this reason, despite the clear slavery theme, I never equated the replicants to, say, African-Americans. To do so, it seemed to me, would be condescending and, more importantly, just plain wrong. As one of reporter Martin’s experts, film archivist Hayden Guest, put it, “The replicants are an extreme other.” But, unlike real people who have been enslaved throughout the world’s history, the replicants were created in a laboratory. The essential crime of human slavery is that it involved humans enslaving other humans. Quite contrary to what Martin’s piece meant to do, I am sure, the comparison between the replicants and African-Americans actually dehumanizes the latter. White and black Americans are, to all intents and purposes, are gentically the same. We are all one species. The fictional replicants really are “the other.” They are a new and different form of life. You might say I’m quibbling, but the distinction is important. To ignore it is to miss the basic point of why slavery was and is morally wrong.

But isn’t slavery wrong even if those enslaved are truly “other” from ourselves? There lies the rub. This is an issue that science fiction writers have grappled with for ages. At what point does technology become sentient and have to be considered living rather than mere artificial intelligence? Whether the literary creations are called robots, androids, humanoids or replicants, the theme keeps recurring. But it’s not just science fiction writers worrying about this stuff anymore. To me, this is the real reason that Blade Runner is perhaps even more topical today than it was upon its release in 1982. In our own day and age, the question of the nature of life and the ethics of creating it or cloning it are hot political topics. If replicants have always seemed at least theoretically possibly, today some version of this purpose-engineered life form actually seems not only distinctly possible but downright probable.

Here’s a question that is bound to get a lot of people upset. Which is a better real-life moral comparison for Scott’s replicants (drawn from the source novel by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?): people who have been enslaved throughout human history or fetuses grown and discarded for the purpose of harvesting stem cells? Of course, that provocative question opens a whole can of worms that gets to the root of people’s moral and religious beliefs as well as what a society’s medical priorities ought to be. I don’t have an answer. But I think that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a much more profound movie than the On the Media piece suggested it is precisely because it prompts us to at least think about those sorts of questions.

-S.L., 9 August 2007

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