Blade Runner: The Final Cut has just been re-released in the UK by the BFI. This is not intended to serve as a review, because reviewing Blade Runner seems like a rather pointless act – you all know it’s fantastic, and if you don’t, you should watch it and realise why everyone is saying it’s fantastic. If you live in the UK, I would also highly recommend watching it in a cinema if you can – the transfer from original negative to 4k digital scan has been done brilliantly, resulting in a phenomenally detailed picture. Being younger than the film, I had not yet seen it on the big screen, and I realise now that I had truly missed out on something. The gigantic, imposing architecture of 2019 LA really gains a sense of scale that is simply unattainable on a TV screen, and, providing your cinema has a good sound system, the magnificent Vangelis soundtrack and the punchy, bold sound mixing bring you an audio system that you simply won’t find anywhere else.
However, I’m not here just to generally gush about the film. Instead, I want to gush about one specific aspect: Ridley Scott’s willingness to insert huge amounts of barely explained world-detail which has absolutely zero payoff.
It’s understandable that most filmmakers do not want to place “stuff” in their stories that will have no direct impact other than its presence. Filmmaking is an expensive business, and script-writing is a slow business. Writing backstories for elements of the world that few viewers will care about or even notice seems like a futile act. Placing more props, more special effects and more “stuff” in a scene seems like an expensive and similarly futile act if it’s not going to be actively used within the story.
Another reason for this reluctace is that it appears to have become a filmmaking instinct to follow the law of Chekhov’s Gun to its logical extreme – the principle, originally meant to apply to theatre, that if there is a gun on the set, then at some point during the play it must be fired. This has been translated into film as the broader idea of “if you place an interesting object in your shot, or mention an interesting idea, it must be used later on in the film.” Chekhov’s Gun is a sound principle, but only for a certain type of story. When everything that appears in a story has relevance in that story, it makes the entire world feel self-contained. It shifts an awful amount of importance onto the characters of the story, as the world that surrounds them seems to be placed there to cater to their needs. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it works just fine if your stories about powerful heroes, great people forging great deeds, men and women who change their world – but it wouldn’t work for Blade Runner, and Ridley Scott realises this.
Blade Runner is about one whiskey-sodden bloke, five robots and the unfortunate fact that they’ll probably end up killing each other. Deckard isn’t a triumphant hero – he’s barely a hero at all, a fact that Roy notes pretty directly, saying “aren’t you the good man?” as he taunts Deckard in the penultimate scene. He’s not going to bring down the sinister monopoly of the Tyrell corporation single-handedly. He’s not going to solve the significant problems of poverty, violence and the obvious corporate control of the police force that we’re regularly shown. Deckard is, as Roy says, a “little man” in a very, very big world. He’s regularly out-fought and outwitted by the replicants (robots) that he’s supposed to be chasing. His entire role, as a Blade Runner, or replicant-killer, is pretty much pointless as the replicants are all about to die anyway due to artificially short lifespans.
This is where Ridley Scott’s almost excessive world-building comes in. For Deckard to feel like a small man in a large world, the world must feel alive, active and very large. We are confronted time and again with suggestions of important events happening out of our reach and view – the mass emigration from Earth to the off-world colonies shown by adverts and suggested by the empty apartments and when we’re told “there’s no shortage of housing around these parts” – but we never see the off-world colonies, and nobody we know travels to them. The wide-scale fusion of Chinese and American culture in Los Angeles is never explained because Deckard probably doesn’t know or doesn’t care how it happened. Realistically, this is probably a hangover from when Ridley Scott wanted to set the film in Hong Kong but couldn’t secure the funding, but it works in the film. We’re not told how the replicants were developed, we’re not told how they’re made, we’re not told about any variant other than the Nexus 6. Why real (as opposed to synthetic) animals are so coveted is never explained, although it’s pretty easy to conclude that the apparently worldwide urban sprawl has brought an end to wildlife.
There’s one image of Blade Runner that sticks in my mind more than anything else. Deckard enters JF Sebastian’s apartment, searching for the two surviving replicants. He passes through the door and into the second room, coming across the amassed clutter of JF’s hobby – “making friends” – literally building synthetic friends. Deckard walks through the accumulated “stuff” brandishing his gun (in the image that sits on top of this article.) His position here seems analogous to his position within the world – he lives in a world full to the brim with stuff. Some of it is dangerous, some of it is not, and most of it he does not understand. He is simply the Blade Runner with the gun, sent to kill some robots.
Everything in Blade Runner comes to a head at Roy’s speech (if you’ve seen the film, you know which one I mean.) If you haven’t, I won’t spoil one of the best moments in cinema for you – go watch it. When Roy talks about C-beams, or the Tanhauser Gate, or the Shoulder of Orion, we have no idea what any of these things signify, and that’s not just OK – it’s necessary for the film to work. Ridley Scott’s excess of “stuff” in Blade Runner serves two purposes: the first, as I have outlined, being to dwarf Deckard in a giant world that cares very little for him or any other character. The second purpose becomes clear only here, having been hinted at by Roy’s earlier line of “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.” In a film where the world extends beyond the barriers of the screen, where we are constantly told that things are happening elsewhere, out of shot, off-world, out of our solar system, only in this world do we truly believe Roy’s assertion that he, a robot, has seen things that we people wouldn’t believe.