25 years ago this week, Blade Runner debuted in American theaters. It was set in a Los Angeles of the future, but its portrayals of race and racism had plenty of resonance in 1982. Reporter Phillip Martin looks back on a classic of cyborgian social criticism.
CHRIS BANNON: The movie Blade Runner debuted in American theaters 25 years ago this week. A science fiction classic that transcended the genre, the film, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, is considered to be one of the best, perhaps the best science fiction film ever made.
Blade Runner tells the story of a lawman named Deckard who specializes in killing genetically-engineered humanoids, called replicants, created to labor on other planets. They have brief lifespans, tightly controlled by their human masters, and several have escaped to Earth to find a way to extend their lives. That is a capital crime.
In director Ridley Scott's version of Los Angeles in the year 2019, Blade Runner is an allegory that combines several very contemporary themes. One of those is racism.
On the Media's Philip Martin pulls at that strand in the dystopic tapestry that is Blade Runner. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] PHILIP MARTIN: Not long into Blade Runner's opening scene of fire-breathing towers set against a cold black sky, Rick Deckard is whisked off to police headquarters. In the original Warner Brothers release, we hear the voiceover of Deckard, ex-detective, ex–blade runner, who's forced out of retirement for one last time to kill replicants who've returned to Earth from a colonized planet.
This version of the film left no room for ambiguity as far as race was concerned. Here, Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, reluctantly meets with his ex-boss. [CLIP]: CAPTAIN BRYANT: You wouldn't have come if I'd just asked you to. Sit down, pal. I've got four skin jobs walkin' the streets. DECKARD: Skin jobs – that's what Bryant called replicants. In history books, he's the kind of cop who used to call black men "niggers." [END OF CLIP] PHILIP MARTIN: Since race is widely viewed as a social construct, then it can be easily reconstructed, at least in the movies. Hayden Guest used to direct Warner Brothers' film archives and does the same job now for Harvard University. HAYDEN GUEST: The replicants are an extreme other. I mean, they are, in fact, an enslaved race, and they're quite literally being driven extinct, I mean here being assassinated, being killed one by one by the blade runner. PHILIP MARTIN: When Blade Runner was released in 1982, the producers demanded that Deckard's inner thoughts be expressed through voiceovers, a device Ridley Scott eliminated in his director's cut. Race and racism were issues pressing hard against America's consciousness, but Scott believed those things spoke for themselves in the set, action and dialogue. [CLIP/MUSIC]: MAN: Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave. [WHIMPERING/CRYING SOUNDS] [END OF CLIP] PHILIP MARTIN: In Blade Runner, the predominant other among the replicants was the so-called Nexus-6 model, named Roy Batty, played by Dutch actor Rutger Hauer.
RUTGER HAUER: The irony is that the maker has sort of put a stamp on the Nexus-6, you know, more human than human, at the same time that Harrison Ford's character, Deckard, seems to be rather poor in the human aspect. He's a slave in his own way. PHILIP MARTIN: It was no accident that the setting for Blade Runner was Los Angeles, which these days is a caldron of ethnic clashes and cultural melding. In director Ridley Scott's vision of the future, L.A. is the literal crossroads of East and West, personified by Edward James Olmos' character, a blade runner named Gaff. He confronts Deckard, who's chowing down at one of the ubiquitous noodle stalls in this futurescape. [CLIP]: [MAN SPEAKING IN “CITY SPEAK”] MAN: He say you blade runner. DECKHARD: Tell him I'm eating. DECKHARD [VOICEOVER]: That gibberish he talked was city-speak, gutter talk, a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] I didn't really need a translator. I knew the lingo; every good cop did. EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: My character was 10 different cultures all in one. PHILIP MARTIN: We reached Edward James Olmos on his cell phone in Vancouver, on the set of his TV series Battlestar Galactica. EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: We've got the Asian influence blended together and the city-speak became something that, you know, we've seen even today in 2007. We don't have to wait to 2019. GARY DAHL FINN: In terms of like how futurists make productions, their vision of L.A. being overrun by the other was distinctly more Asian than the current paranoias. PHILIP MARTIN: L.A. writer Gary Dahl Finn says the current paranoias are focused on Mexico. GARY DAHL FINN: L.A. is, you know, a Chicano city, and I think that to the extent that downtown reflects that, it's different than what's depicted in the film. PHILIP MARTIN: What the film depicts is a future where Mexicans, blacks and Asians do not bear the brunt of fear, hate and suspicion, partly because there are no blacks and few Latinos in this dystopic version of the future.
The movie came out when Hollywood was in short supply of both. Instead, we see replicants, who, like the historical image of African-Americans, are seen through the prism of untamed physical strength, entertainment and sexuality.
In fact, one of the replicants pursued by Deckard is a kind of sexual plaything, one is a dancer, one is a manual laborer. Harvard film archivist, Hayden Guest. HAYDEN GUEST: So much is stressed on their physicality, you know, the actual bodies at the end, where, you know, they're doing physical stunts throughout the film, and so much emphasis is placed on this. They're actually fighting for their lives. They express themselves predominantly through their bodies. [CLIP]: RUTGER HAUER: Why are you staring at us, Sebastian? SEBASTIAN: 'Cause you're so different. You're so perfect. RUTGER HAUER: Yes. SEBASTIAN: What generation are you? RUTGER HAUER: Nexus-6. SEBASTIAN: Ah! I knew it! 'Cause I do genetic design work for the Tyrell Corporation. There's some of me in you. [LAUGHS] [CUCKOO CLOCK SOUNDING IN BACKGROUND] Show me something. RUTGER HAUER: Like what? SEBASTIAN: Like anything. RUTGER HAUER: We're not computers, Sebastian. We're physical. [END OF CLIP] PHILIP MARTIN: In 1982, on sets throughout Hollywood, black actors were being cast as iron macho men, pimps or as sex machines, as in Shaft or Superfly. At the other extreme, they were portrayed as utterly without sex or anger, but rather as secular saints.
You find reflections of that kind of portrayal in The Matrix series and satirized in such films as Bruce Almighty and, more recently, Evan Almighty, where Morgan Freeman literally plays God.
In Blade Runner¸ Roy Batty is a kind of god. He seems to fly. He is pierced and bloodied, in a subtle allusion to stigmata. He transcends his agony and achieves grace.
Rutger Hauer has co-authored a new book about his Blade Runner role, titled All Those Moments. RUTGER HAUER: It's an investigation in humanity and life that we're not that familiar with, and in that way sort of, you know, expand your horizon. The story of Blade Runner is almost an excuse to revalue what humanity is about. [CLIP]: [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] RUTGER HAUER: I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those – moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die. [END OF CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] PHILIP MARTIN: He dies, no longer a slave, a second-class human defined by the manner of its creation or his genetic code. He is just a creature of the senses, a mortal man who would have liked to live a little longer.
It is, for Hollywood, a profoundly poetic statement about the inescapable brotherhood of man, and the principal reason why Blade Runner endures. For On the Media, I'm Philip Martin. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] CHRIS BANNON: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo and Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Andrya Ambro and Madeleine Elish. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcasts at onthemedia.org and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone. CHRIS BANNON: Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Chris Bannon. [MUSIC TAG]
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