How the Blade Runner Films Get Their Audience to Ask Questions
by Ben Dreblow
Minor Spoilers for both films
If you know me it is no secret that I adore the Blade Runner films; they have had a profound impact on the way I view film. One of the things the films opened my mind to was cinema’s ability to cause its audience to ask questions. You cannot help but think about what it means to be human and how technology will impact society’s progress when watching Blade Runner and its 2017 sequel. These points are so discussed that you would be hard pressed to find a review or discussion of the films that does not mention these existential questions. Which got me thinking about another question: how can a film get its audience to respond in such a way?
Certainly you could have characters ask the questions themselves, within the film. For example, they could say the line: “what does it mean to be human?” However, audiences and critics would likely cringe at such obvious storytelling. Besides, merely having characters ask the question within the film does not mean the film itself is asking the question. If you could insert that line into a stoner buddy comedy like Pineapple Express, would that suddenly mean that film as a whole is asking it? I would say no.
I believe it would be fitting to take a look at the Blade Runner films, and see how they achieve this response. I will be using the “what does it mean to be human” question that is often discussed in relation to these two films as the example question they are trying ask. Neither Blade Runner nor its sequel have moments like I described, where a character verbally asks the question the film is asking. So how do these films accomplish this effect?
Each of these films has a script that places the characters within a narrative where the subject of the question it wants to ask plays a central role within them. In Blade Runner, humans have created a race of androids that look and behave exactly like humans. Called “replicants,” these androids are essentially used for slave labor. Some of these replicants are starting to violently revolt and the blade runners are tasked with retiring (killing) these rebellious creations. Blade Runner 2049 escalates the conflict between humanity and its likeness with the reveal that some replicants are capable of conceiving children. A key moment in the script for Blade Runner that helps ask this question is the famous “tears in the rain” monologue delivered by the late Rutger Hauer. The night before filming, Hauer cut many parts from the monologue as he felt the moment had been overwritten on the page. In this moment, Hauer’s replicant character delivers a monologue describing the most striking experiences of his short life. Recalling life’s greatest memories and the miracle of childbirth are all deeply human things for a mere replicant to experience.
However, film is a visual art form, and having this story on paper does not mean it will be communicated effectively on film, nor will Rutger Hauer’s tremendous performance contribute much if it is not captured. Films need to use their visuals appropriately to ask their questions effectively. The Blade Runner films rely on their production design and lighting to ask the question visually. They do this through the design of the replicants. Think about how differently we would react to the replicants if they were not so similar to us in their design. What if the filmmakers behind Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 decided to give them translucent skin where one could see their mechanical internals, or if they put a glowing light on the side of their head? We would likely begin to feel as if they were less human than we are. Instead, they look nearly identical, save for a lighting trick used in the first film to add a very subtle glow in the eyes of the replicants. (Which are the window to the soul after all!)
This is where the question comes to a head. When we see the similarity between the humans and the replicants, in look and behavior, when we hear them share their fondest memories of their lives, we think, “what makes us different from them?” In order to answer that we need to ask what makes us human to begin with. In this way the Blade Runner films invite their audience into a thought experiment that is both beautiful and bleak. The answers you get will certainly depend on your own beliefs and worldview. Perhaps what makes us human means we are different from the replicants, perhaps not. Either way, the ability of a film to cause such existential contemplation is truly incredible and at times mystifying.
The ways in which films can ask questions cannot be contained in one essay, and certainly do not read these methods I describe as the only ones out there. Every film is different, and different questions can require different methods. I hope that this essay has been helpful to you, and opened your mind like the Blade Runner films opened mine, to the ways films can ask questions.