FROM READERS: 'Blade Runner' offers unique view of humanity and what defines it

Friday, August 10, 2012 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:29 p.m. CDT, Saturday, August 11, 2012
Bards such as the blind poet Homer pictured above used vivid images like The Shield of Achilles to help people remember who they are in the face of time’s relentless changes.

W. Arthur Mehrhoff is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art & Archaeology.

Phillippe de Montobello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, once called museums “the memory of mankind,” an appropriate title and role for a special place set aside to honor Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Bards such as the blind poet Homer used vivid images such as The Shield of Achilles to help people remember who they are in the face of time’s relentless changes. Centuries later, museums continue to tell those stories and show those images to help us remember and re-consider their meaning.

Film Showing

The Museum of Art & Archaeology will show the film "Blade Runner" [Director’s Cut] at 7 p.m. Aug. 16.

It will be shown in Room 106, Pickard Hall, in conjunction with the current exhibition “City-scapes” now showing until Sept. 2.

The film is free and open to the public.

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For example, in 1816 young English schoolmaster Charles Cowdon Clarke introduced his pupil John Keats to the translations of Homer’s "Iliad" and "Odyssey" by Elizabethan poet George Chapman, the first to render them in the English language. Clarke and Keats read the stories together in what the enthralled Keats called “our first symposium,” then Keats raced home to compose his marvelous poem "On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer":

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

The poem itself becomes an epic voyage involving both Keats and his readers (that would be us). The first six lines compare Keats the intellectual inquirer to Odysseus the maritime explorer, followed by a "volta" introducing the “loud and bold” interpretation by Chapman, then the last six lines compare Chapman’s verse to discovering a new planet or ocean which leaves us gasping in a visionary state of “wild surmise.” As one reviewer concluded, “Keats and his readers are truly in a new world – a rather cinematic one.”

That same “wild surmise” at discovering a new, cinematic world also applied to my experience of Ridley Scott’s legendary film "Blade Runner." A unique, post-modern blend of science fiction and film noir detective story, "Blade Runner" (1982) initially disappointed many critics and the Hollywood box office; in the past three decades, though, it has subsequently achieved cult status. In 1993 the Library of Congress selected "Blade Runner" for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant;" in 2007 the Visual Effects Society named "Blade Runner" the second most visually influential film of all time. Many subsequent films (e.g., "Batman"), anime, video games and television programs show its influence; people in the Hollywood film industry still refer to the "'Blade Runner' scenario." Director Ridley Scott considers it his most personal and complete film, though he has continued to rework it through the past three decades.

Los Angeles circa 2020 has become a dystopian cityscape of ubiquitous corporate advertising, pollution, social inequality and multiculturalism run amok including replicants, androids built by the tyrannical Tyrell Corp. for use in dangerous “off-world” (aka space) colonization. These replicants were designed with idealized human characteristics, including artificial memories, but only with four-year life spans to minimize the development of consciousness and emotions. Four dangerous replicants led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) escape servitude at a space colony by killing several humans and returning to Earth.

Once a leading blade runner, (code for detectives who hunt down and assassinate rogue replicants), Rick Deckard (a "Star Wars" vintage Harrison Ford) is compelled out of retirement to track down and kill the rogue replicants. After first meeting with Eldon Tyrell, creator of the replicants, Deckard "retires" Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), the first of his targets. Attacked by another replicant, Leon, Deckard is saved from imminent death by Tyrell’s assistant Rachael (Sean Young), a "special" replicant who's unaware she’s really a replicant (that’s why she’s special). In the meantime, Batty and Pris (Darryl Hannah), his replicant "pleasure model" lover, deceive research scientist J.F. Sebastian in order to locate and murder their creator Tyrell in an Oedipal act recalling regicide and patricide. Deckard then tracks the pair to Sebastian's, where on the rooftop of a skyscraper high above the city the climactic, life or death confrontation between Deckard and Batty finally unfolds.

"Blade Runner" operates on many levels far beyond that of an ordinary action/adventure story. It utilizes the futuristic nature of the science fiction genre, in terms of plot, casting and cinematography, to critique contemporary society for what it is doing to the role of the individual.

A highly literate film, it considers the religious and moral implications of the hubris underlying genetic engineering like some classical Greek drama (one reviewer spoke of its “Oedipal echoes”) or Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein." It also draws heavily on Biblical narratives such as Genesis, The Flood, and the Crucifixion. The Immortal  Game of chess in 1851 even figures into the story in a scene reminiscent of legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergmann. Cinematically, "Blade Runner" also owes considerably to the film noir genre: its dark, shadowy cinematography emphasizing a harsh urban setting; a beautiful femme fatale; narration by the hero/antihero (subsequently removed in The Director’s Cut); and the moral ambiguity of the protagonist, including reflections upon the nature of his own humanity. Furthermore, "Blade Runner" not only critiques contemporary society but also the way the society represents itself (e.g., women) in cinema; some reviewers regard it as the first post-modern film about film itself.

All these dramatic elements underscore the movie's central theme: the nature of human nature. From the outset of the film, eyes and manipulated images symbolically question reality and our ability to remember truthfully. Replicants borrow photographs and memories from others, their selves created by others like Facebook personae run amok. An empathy test involving an eye examination is used to discover replicants, posing questions dealing with the treatment of animals ("Criminal Minds" would agree those are an essential indicator of someone's "humanity."). However, in the film the replicants appear to show compassion and concern for one another compared to most of the human characters lacking such empathy. "Real" humans such as Tyrell and Gaff seem like robots, while replicants condemned to four short years of existence desperately aspire to some measure of humanity. Who is more human — the replicants fighting for life or the humans seeking to “retire” them? The film (especially The Director’s Cut) even raises serious doubt about whether Deckard himself (through whose eyes we observe the action in the film) is human, forcing us to re-evaluate our own ‘gaze’ and moral stance.

Director Ridley Scott described "Blade Runner" as "extremely dark, both literally and metaphorically, with an oddly masochistic feel," in a 2002 interview with The Observer (London), “exploring pain" in the wake of his brother's recent death from skin cancer. The dark, brooding tone of his 2020 vision suffuses the entire film: constant rain, the omnipresent police, searchlights and surveillance probing everywhere. At a larger scale, corporate power looms large, the environment is totally manipulated, artificial animals have replaced their extinct predecessors. Perhaps in keeping with Scott’s hospital experiences with his dying brother, "Blade Runner" wrestles mightily with the vast influence of biomedical power over the individual, especially the consequences for replicants of their implanted memories. This relentlessly oppressive backdrop explains the frequent references of human migration to "off-world" colonies and the subsequent need for replicants to make such migration possible.

"Blade Runner" uses its “loud and bold” futuristic setting to pose ancient, universal questions about the humanities. The retrofitted future cityscape of "Blade Runner," high-tech and gleaming in some places but old and decayed elsewhere, underscores this tension between past and future. In between its flying cars, Aztec architecture and gigantic video advertising zeppelins, the film forces us to consider what really makes us human: Is it memories? Is it the sum of experiences we accumulate? What is real and authentic? What shall we make of this human odyssey? A truly visionary film, "Blade Runner" continues to speak to modern trends and concerns even as it fulfills its traditional role within the Museum of Art & Archaeology: to share authentic stories and images in meaningful contexts that help us see clearly to remember who we really are.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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