Aren't We All Just Replicants on the Inside?
The 1982 science fiction film "Blade Runner" may be among the youngest revivals at this year's New York Film Festival, screening in a remastered edition dubbed "the final cut" alongside classics by John Ford and Josef von Sternberg. But as an enthused panel discussion suggested this weekend at the Walter Reade Theater, Ridley Scott's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel about artificial superhumans on the loose in 2019 Los Angeles lives on in more than one sense of the phrase.
"Aren't we all replicants now?" Giuliana Bruno, a professor of film and visual culture at Harvard University, asked at the panel, titled "The Future Is Now: Blade Runner at 25." In a world of rapid technological innovation that affects not only how we live but how we think and remember, "We're all suffering from accelerated decrepitude,'" she said, poised at obsolescence like the film's expiration-date humanoids.
At the event, analytical presentations by Ms. Bruno and other academics were followed by heartfelt commentary from the film's art director, production designer, screenwriter, and even Dick's daughter. The hybrid lineup, assembled by festival chairman Richard Peña, interrelated the film's vivid, meticulous design and noirish mood with its equally intense postmodern gestalt of fractured (and replicated) humanity. The film's vision of Los Angeles fuels its enduring fascination for fans. Dubbed "a work of future archaeology" by Ms. Bruno, "Blade Runner" is set in a hazy, monumental metropolis of perpetual, rain-slick nighttime. Harrison Ford's sober replicant-killing hero, Rick Deckard, weaves through crowds at street-level and flies in an air-car to the pyramid-like home of the Tyrell Corporation, creators of artificial intelligence. Production designer Larry Paull and art director David Snyder fondly recalled the long nights spent constructing these sets and perfecting the architecturally precise look of the movie one of the last pre-computer generated, matte-heavy masterpieces. Much of the production team had backgrounds in architecture and design, including Mr. Scott, an art-school graduate.
"[Ridley] Scott said, You build it, and I promise you, I'll shoot it,'" Mr. Snyder recalled. Location shots included Los Angeles landmarks such as Union Station and the Bradbury Building, and Mr. Snyder freely admitted adapting Nazi architect Albert Speer's designs for the monolithic Tyrell headquarters. If the resulting artificial city's surplus of mood reminds you of the 1940s, that's no accident. "The film was: film noir, the future," Mr. Paull said. "This is not a science fiction movie. If anything, it's science fact."
But like the best science fiction, "Blade Runner" hitches its boundless imagination to deep anxieties about civilization. The source of that unease is not simply grounded in prescient details, such as the city's barrage of advertisements. "The physicality is so sensual because it's informed by impending death," a Stanford University professor, Scott Bukatman, said. Like the paradoxical existence of the replicants god-like but more mortal than humans the city exists in a mood of present-tense elegy, traceable down to the films of Wong Kar-wai today.
The plight of those replicants, always subject to verification as "real," also creates an environment of doubt. It's at once unsettling and deeply human.
"Blade Runner' reminds us of these questions that are no longer asked: the condition of being human, fitting in a society," Mr. Bukatman said. In today's science fiction, "those questions are not being raised. And we have become far more comfortable with the technologies we were so suspicious of 25 years ago more comfortable but not more knowledgeable."
Much of this suspicion, about the nature of reality as much about technology, is traceable to the work of Dick. Sadly, the novelist managed to view only about 20 minutes of rushes from the film before his death. The verdict?
"He was thrilled, just giddy about what he saw," attested his daughter, Isa Dick, manager of her father's legacy together with her brother and sister. "As much as he liked to make derogatory comments about Hollywood, he couldn't wait for it to come out." Not everyone on the panel joined the chorus of praise. Jane Gaines, a Columbia University professor, voiced skepticism about the film's "self-congratulatory clubbishness about the superiority of humans." But screenwriter Hampton Fancher, somewhat the wild card of the panel, was duly impressed by the panel's theorizing. "[While writing], I was thinking in vague Cro-Magnon ways, that this is what they might think," he said. He seemed especially taken with Mr. Bukatman's ideas about curiosity, empathy, and what makes us all truly human.
"Doubt," he agreed, "puts the pants on the monkey."
While moviegoers may have too humanly doubted the poorly performing "Blade Runner" when it was released in 1982, the jazzed audience for the panel confirmed the enduring strength of its appeal and influence.