By Mo Liu, VI Form
Blade Runner: A Bipolar Fantasy
When Ridley Scott released his original Blade Runner in June 1982, the United States had just arrived at another peak of tension with the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan had recently become President, and he denounced the policy of detente that previously dominated the U.S. foreign relations approach and wanted to re-establish the United States’ fierce international appearance. Reagan devised an ambitious plan to actively contain communism that historians would later refer to as “Reagan’s Second Cold War,” in which he called for an overt attempt to destruct the Soviet Union. After a short time-out, Americans once again found themselves in the war of tug with the Soviets, watching out for Soviet spies and waiting for the siren to alarm them of an approaching nuclear warhead.
The paranoia and chaos of Reagan’s Second Cold War gave birth to Blade Runner. As Jonathan Crary, an art professor at Columbia University points out, Blade Runner was an artistic creation “deeply of its time.” The film itself appears to be dark and full of shadows, and the story is about the coexistence of humans with androids who have human appearances and abilities but only a four-year lifespan. Replicants are banned from the Earth because humans feel threatened by them, and “blade runner” Deckard received an order to “retire” a group of replicants who escaped back to the Earth. During his mission, he became intimate with Rachael, whose identity as a replicant was only known to a few, Deckard included. In short, the story is about a hunter killing human simulations while falling in love with one along the way. The movie is gray, complicated, and depressing, with just a right amount of action and violence but mostly stayed on the side of emotional tension. The excruciating tension in Blade Runner offers a small taste of the Cold War.
Ridley Scott created a true masterpiece that aligned with many elements recurring in Cold War era movies: creation of artificial intelligence like the robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), invasion of non-human species like the aliens in The Invasion of Body Snatchers (1956), and the depiction of a future dystopia like those in Brave New World (1980) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1984) among many others. The climate of the Cold War shaped these common elements in films. The military competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, commonly known as the arms race, attracted so much attention to scientific inventions that people inquired the feasibility of creating human-like intelligence — an enthusiasm that traces back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Sputnik and Apollo, among other creations of the Cold War space race, revolutionized the human race’s realm of imagination, but they also disseminated fear of unknown alien creatures invading the Earth. Lastly, a nuclear war seemed to be the inevitable destination of the Cold War, even more so for generations who lived under a government that appraised brinkmanship and those who survived crises like the Cuban Missile Crisis. The reality prompted people to picture the survival of the human race after mass nuclear destruction. Crary argues that many attractions in Blade Runner are becoming irrelevant since the audience today live in a world where neither Berlin Wall nor the Soviet Union still exists. His argument is valid to an extent: the audience today cannot physically experience the trickling hopelessness of the Cold War that the film was trying to recreate, but they can draw parallels between themes in the film and the characteristics of the American society amid Cold War struggles and gain a better understanding of the era.
Blade Runner, like the Cold War, revolves around bipolarities. The definitions of the poles, for instance, the lines between black and white or right and wrong, are yet not so definitive in this movie. The two most essential struggles in Blade Runner are blurring lines between order and chaos and humanity and inhumanity. These areas of tension then lead to the discussion of “us” and “them” and how Blade Runner reflects many elements in the American culture in the Cold War era.
Order and Chaos
The Los Angeles in Blade Runner is full of contradictions between structure and disorder. In the opening sequences of the film, Ridley Scott presents a drone view of a 2019 Los Angeles, fogged by the flames coming out of industrial chimneys. Despite the night view, the Tyrell Corporation pyramidal building presides over the others in the center of the city, and the absolute symmetry of the architecture itself is the epitome of organization. As the city slowly reveals itself, chaos behind the marvels of industrialization becomes visible. The inner city resembles an unregulated black market, carrying food of suspicious ingredients, biotechnical and hazardous products, and prostitution. The cramped space, cheap neon lights, and old mannequins add to the depiction of a city low-life. Most of the population on the street was Asian, while presumably, the majority of Los Angeles white population has moved to the off-world.
The penetration of Asian cultures in Blade Runner reflects Americans’ fear of the rising powers of pacific rim countries in the 1980s. Philip K. Kick’s book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? inspired the production of the movie, but Blade Runner inherited its name from William Burroughs 1979 script, Blade Runner (A Movie), and the author’s literary works, Naked Lunch (1959) for instance, are associated with oriental cultures. The frequent appearances of Asian race and cultures in Cold War media is not a coincidence. The growing influence of countries in the East like China and Japan — perhaps China in particular because of its association with the Soviet Union and communism — and a large flow of immigrants from the same countries threatened the Americans in a similar manner that humans felt threatened by replicants in Blade Runner.
The Asian domination present in Blade Runner could also be the future after the United States and the Soviet Union annihilated each other through assured nuclear retaliation. After the white population is practically wiped off from Earth and its few survivors escaped to off-world colonies, the Asian immigrants recreated their ingenious Third World within the First, a world full of violence, filth, and irreversible decay. Characters in Blade Runner seem to be used to the chaos: Deckard went to a deserted neighborhood to be alone, Pris waited for Sebastian in a pile of garbage, and Sebastian lived a deteriorating building covered in dust. The urban streets in Blade Runner forecast a horrific dystopia that matches many Americans’ imagination of a world after nuclear annihilation.
Structure and order, however, still exists in the city. While Asian advertisements and shops fill the streets, the whites remain in power. They are the ones who run the Tyrell Corporation and avoid all of the urban chaos by staying in the elevated pyramid, and they are the ones who control LAPD. Blade Runner follows a strict racial-power construct: every powerful person in the movie — Tyrell, Deckard, and officer Bryant — is white. Besides the unspoken racial ranking, the presence of police was a constant reminder of order. The American society during the Cold War emphasized on normality, which in many situations equated to the majority, and people’s actions were under intense scrutiny. The power that whites possess in Blade Runner reflects the privileged position that a white, heterosexual, and Protestant American male would enjoy. Yet regardless of status, everyone is being supervised by the government. The personality tests and assessment of the signature styles in The Organization Man are indicators of the suspicion and mistrust that penetrated the American society. The Cold War epidemic of paranoia manifested itself in the Big Brother’s omnipresent watch in 1984, and in Blade Runner, it is the screeching siren of LAPD cars hovering above the streets.
Humanity and Inhumanity
In Blade Runner, the fundamental difference between replicants and humans is that humans are capable of memories and emotions. Replicants are built to be machines for specific purposes: Pris is a “basic pleasure model” that is designed for prostitution, and Roy is a warrior type. Humans take great precaution to protect their “humanity” — that they come from a woman’s womb and not a Tyrell factory, so blade runners invented the Voight-Kampff test to tell replicants apart from real human beings. In the beginning of the movie, the Tyrell interviewer asked replicant Leon: “describe in single words, only the good things that come to your mind about your mother.” This particular question is interesting because it relates to the concept of “momism” in Modern Women. Memories of one’s mother, therefore, are thought to elicit dramatic emotional responses because it is part of the Voight-Kampff test, and it matches the strong opinions Americans had toward moms in the Cold War era.
One can suspect another to be a replicant as easily as one is perceived to be a replicant by the others because there is no difference in appearances that distinguish replicants from real humans. This theory is also valid in the context of the Red Scare: one can be accused a communist and accuse others to be communist, and there was no Voight-Kampff test for communism. The ambiguity leads to a less obvious question: what exactly, is the “humanity” that humans have and replicants lack? The Voight-Kampff test argues that replicants lack empathy and therefore their pupils do not respond involuntarily to questions that generate emotional responses. As the movie goes on, the audience gradually realizes that that is untrue: Rachel is capable of loving Deckard, Leo showed immense grief after watching Zhora’s death, and Roy pulled Deckard back to the rooftop while he could have let him die. Replicants are, after all, not so different from their human counterparts. Even the evil Roy shed tears of real longing and pain, and his pupils were clear and pure. On the other hand, humans are the ones losing the empathy that they declare exclusivity to. After Deckard shot Zhora, she lay on the rainy street in her pool of blood, and few passersby paused to even look at her. When the scene is shot at a distance, moving shadows constantly block the front of the camera, indicating people’s apathy towards the tragedy. When Tyrell talked to Deckard about Rachel, he said that his goal is to create replicants that are “more human than human.” He invented creatures that are capable of human emotions and memories, but he treats them “nothing more” than a scientific “experiment”.
As viewers of the movie realize that replicants are not so different from humans, they also realize that the term “retiring” is not so different from murder. Names are just technicalities that attempt to hide the ugly truth. Humans said replicants are retired, not killed, to justify the slaughtering of creatures that have emotions and memories as vivid as those of humans’; the United States said communists were not illegal, and they charged and imprisoned accused communists, among groups like the homosexuals for other crimes. When they first met, Rachel asked Deckard: “have you ever retired a human by mistake?” Deckard hesitated before he answered. He knew that technically only replicants died under his bullets, but he needed a minute to convince himself that the what he had done was different from killing humans. Killing is a crime, but retiring replicants is acceptable and even encouraged. Similarly, there is little difference between imprisoning a regular American and imprisoning an accused communist, only that the former is a violation of constitutional rights and the later is an act of patriotism.
“Us” and “Them”
In the end, Blade Runner is a story about two groups that struggled to accept each other’s identity, and the Cold War is a story of the competition between two countries of clashing ideologies. In both cases, people were trying to protect what they thought to be an irreplaceable element of their identities: for humans in Blade Runner it was their humanity, and for Americans in the Cold War it was their democratic values. Humans created the Voight-Kampff pupil test to recognize replicants lurking in the dark, and Americans designed personality tests like the ones described in Organization Man to prevent Soviet spies from sabotaging the American enterprise. Both humans in Blade Runner and Americans during the Cold War went through great effort to protect themselves from the invasion of “others”, yet they could not tell themselves apart from the enemy.
In the Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, replicants found their own “replicants”. The replicant police K had an avatar girlfriend who is a hologram who talks, thinks, and eventually falls in love with K. Humans feel more human than replicants, and replicants feel more human than their avatars. In the end, the definition of humanity — which was previously defined by one’s ability to empathy — loses itself in the evolution of humanity. The love between K and his avatar girlfriend was as real as the love between Deckard and Rachel and the love between Jack and Rose in Titanic. In a way, humans, replicants, and avatars are all the same. Taking that to the Cold War, Americans, accused communists, and Soviet communists were also indistinguishable, because everyone started questioning who they were, and nobody is anything anymore.
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