‘Blade Runner’ and race

by guest contributor Manish, originally published at Ultrabrown

In Blade Runner: The Final Cut, the 25th anniversary edition of that seminal film, little-known indie director Ridley Scott (A Good Year, Black Rain) uses yellow panic to convey a dystopian future. Impenetrable Chinese and kanji ideographs and Arabic vocals from the Brian Eno track ‘Quran’ signify a future where Earth is crumbling, most have moved off-world, and the seedy neighborhoods left behind are non-European. In Blade Runner, white flight means leaving for the sub-orbs.

In one scene, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) chases a replicant down a crowded street, pushing his way through a group of Hare Krishnas. The world may be run by spinners, androids, implants and megacorps, but like cockroaches, Krishnas and Chinese noodles survive. Make way, make way; Deckard locates and blasts Joanna Cassidy, in a scene reshot with the aging actress specifically for the final cut.

Deckard later tracks down a clue, decorative scales from an artificial snake. The music switches to tabla and desi vocals as he shakes down the Muslim proprietor. Paul Oakenfold sampled other parts of the soundtrack in ‘Goa Mix’ (’94). Artless though it is, Blade Runner’s multiculti melange is even today far ahead of ultrawhite sci-fi/fantasy films like E.T. (which crushed Blade Runner on their head-to-head opening weekend), Star Wars, and the modern-day Lord of the Rings. The only sci-fi films I’ve seen recently which were as multiculti were Serenity and Sunshine.

* * * * *

Blade Runner has held up remarkably well over time. It’s still gripping and panoramic and ambitious in a way not often attempted in sci-fi these days. Its atmospherics were remarkable. It was the Half-Life 2 of its time in terms of immersive, spooky audio and visuals; today, PC games are the new Blade Runner. The film’s models look great, non-CGI-fakey. With physical models, getting the lighting and physics right is pretty much automatic.

Later movies freely pinched from key scenes in Blade Runner. Silas in The Da Vinci Code was ripped from Rutger Hauer’s white-haired Jesus figure, complete with crucifixion reference. Daryl Hannah’s leotarded replicant crushes Ford’s neck between her thighs. The scene was gleefully echoed by Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp in Goldeneye.

The ghostly, omnipresent advertising blimp showed up later as the floating zeppelin in Æon Flux. Hide-and-seek with living toys and assassins with calling cards have become fright flick staples. ‘Time to die,’ uttered twice in different contexts, is now a survival horror catchphrase. Blade Runner’s even got its very own ‘Han shot first‘ fanböi squabble, the unicorn scene.

Ford’s antihero, a moper who’s overmatched by his adversaries, was an extension of his Han Solo routine, coming five years after the success of Star Wars. Little since has been as grand. The younger Ford was handsome, Tom Cruise as a wiseass with a crooked smile.

But there are a few glaring anachronisms 25 years on. The computer screens, small, dim CRTs with underpowered raster engines, look laughable these days, almost like the purposeful pneumatic throwbacks in Brazil. Hauer’s sneering villain in a black leather greatcoat is like the cheesy baddies from Rocky IV and Superman II, and they come with lines just as stale.

Most strikingly, Hauer’s eyes, bucktooth and ‘Oriental’ lisp as he’s threatening Methuselah Man, and Ford’s effete, gay accent as he pretends to be a theater activist, would not fly today as broadly as they’re played here. Sadly, eye geneticist James Hong has made an entire career out of Orientalism. He was the mystical ping pong master in Balls of Fury this past summer.

The movie itself uses androids as a metaphor for American slavery. Here’s a snippet of Deckard’s voiceover excised from the final cut:

Bryant: Come on, don’t be an asshole Deckard, I’ve got four skin jobs walking the streets.

Deckard (voiceover): Skin jobs. That’s what Bryant called replicants. In history books, he’s the kind of cop that used to call black men n–. [Link]

Blade Runner elides ethnicity even as it seems to deal specifically with it… The replicants… function as replacements for blacks, whose absence… has made it economically desirable… to construct a new race of slaves. Only this time… we’ll get it right: we’ll program them with a four-year life span to keep them from getting uppity… a fearful white technocracy constructs its new race of slaves “better,” meaning white-skinned and blonde. [Link]

* * * * *

Scott is dealing with race with more sophistication these days. Edward James Olmos’ young wife Lymari Nadal plays the wife in American Gangster, Scott’s latest, and there are only offhand references to her character’s Puerto Rican heritage. Denzel Washington plays a Harlem heroinista like an MBA with a gun.

But the scenes set in Vietnam may make you wince again. Ric Young’s Chinese general has the impenetrable stillness of Hannibal Lecter.

Here’s the Final Cut trailer:

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