bladerunner 80 jpg.jpgThe idea for this article occurred to me a few seconds into “Life is a Gamble,” track 10 on Marvin Gaye’s score for Ivan Dixon’s Trouble Man. The churning sax and bubbles of Moog rolled over me, and suddenly I was in Los Angeles, circa 2019. I pulled my Blade Runner soundtrack off the shelf and skipped to track five, “Love Theme”. I wasn’t imagining it. Dick Morrisey’s sax was replicating (Replicant-ing?) the opening of “Life is a Gamble” nearly note for note.


As a guy who makes movies, I know that music is only one part of the process. But it’s often the part – perhaps because it comes so late in postproduction – that pulls the disparate elements together and  captures the film’s tone. So I wondered, if there’s a kinship between the scores for Blade Runner and Trouble Man, could the film have other affinities with blaxploitation? What if Blade Runner isn’t, as it’s usually described, a futuristic film noir, but a futuristic blaxploitation film?

Some parallels are pretty clear. The Replicants are slaves, bred for labour (Brion James’ Leon), military service (Rutger Hauer’s Roy), domestic duties (Sean Young’s Rachael) or not-so-euphemistically for “pleasure” (Daryl Hannah’s Pris). They are not judged by the content of their character, but by the fact that they are “skin jobs”.

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The advertorial zeppelins that appear throughout Blade Runner exhort, “A new life awaits you inthe Off-World Colonies! A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunityand adventure!” But we’re hip to the lie: transports to the Off-World Colonies are slave ships to extra-planetary plantations, at least for Replicants. If they’re obedient, they’re allowed to run out their four-year life spans in quiet kiroshi. But if they want more – more freedom, more rights or simply, as Hauer’s Roy puts it, “more life”- they run up against The Man.

And in Blade Runner, as in any good blaxploitation film, The Man is a policeman: Harrison Ford’s Deckard, the titular Blade Runner. What makes the film really interesting, though, and strengthens the blaxploitation interpretation, is that Deckard is himself a Replicant. (Yes, I know the debate still rages, but I’ve made peace with the fact that he has an incept date and implanted memories). He’s oblivious to the fact, self-denying, you could even say, “passing”, Imitation-of-Life-style, but he’s as much a blaxploitation protagonist as John Shaft, Jesse Crowder or Slaughter. In the world of Blade Runner, genetics is identity, but so is
perception. It’s a Replicant thing. You wouldn’t understand.

The fact that the “Replicant problem” is a manufactured one is also important. The film’s tagline, “Man Has Made His Match… Now It’s His Problem” sums it up. This isn’t just a crime story; it’s a cultural one, a societal one. Like Shaft going up against the white mafia, Friday Foster confronting the “Black Widow” plan or Duke Johnson taking on the redneck forces of Bucktown, the action of Blade Runner takes place in the context of a larger class/race struggle. The Tyrell Corporation motto, “More human than human” is 2019’s “Black is beautiful.”

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The plot of Blade Runner comes loosely from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but the title comes from William S. Burroughs’ Blade Runner, A Movie, a narrative of the collapse of social services and the national ghetto-ization of America. This is the world as Watts, the world as Harlem. The setting of Blade Runner bears this out: it isn’t the urban grime of the noir era, it’s the urban decay of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Bradbury Building, location for numerous noir films and television shows, becomes, in Blade Runner, a crumbling, garbage-strewn sieve, an emblem of inner-city decay.

And yes, I know that all the Replicants in the film are white. Pristinely, bleached-blonde-ly white. So white that some of them are Dutch. But it’s not so much a matter of melanin as it is of minority status. The Replicants are a (sub)class of people, and they’re marked by their skin colour. The city around them is polyglot melting pot of pureed ethnicities, and against this backdrop, their eugenically white skin makes them conspicuous targets. Call it photonegative profiling.

I may be on to something here, or I may be on to nothing. For the record, my friend Sean O’Neill, who knows more about film scores and soundtracks than any man who’s lost his virginity has any right to, thinks my whole premise is crazy. Then again, he also pronounces “Vangelis” with a hard “g”.

But that’s the thing about film. You sit in a room with dozens, even hundreds of other people, and even though you all watch the same images and hear the same dialogue and music, every person sees a different movie. Every example of the Seventh Art supports multiple interpretations, by you, me, even the filmmaker. If Ridley Scott can reinterpret, producing director’s cut after director’s cut, then so can we.



Ian Driscoll is a contrarian. No, I’m not.

12 replies »

  1. Ha! Nice note to end on. Seriously, with the hype each successive “cut” gets, it’s nice to hear a theory about (the admittedly great) Blade Runner that doesn’t involve fucking unicorns.


  2. I got the fancy new Blade Runner briefcase full of DVDs for Christmas, but oddly, I haven’t been able to summon up much enthusiasm to watch the umpteen versions, since it all feels a little overdone at this point. Although I might have to watch the Final Cut with the blaxploitation angle in mind, thanks Ian!


  3. This piece was just in time to get me interested in seeing the “Final Cut” version of Blade Runner that played in Toronto this weekend.
    Watching the movie, I could see racialized parallels with blaxploitation and how the replicants were portrayed as exotic and dangerous, though I’m not so sure that Deckard is a replicant. Deckard actually started to remind me of the kind of untrustworthy narrator/protagonist in narratives where you start out identifying with that voice, only to discover as the story progresses that he’s actually a bad guy. More than ever before, I saw Deckard as one of the bad guys in that movie: killing only the two female replicants (Zhora & Bris) and raping a third (Rachel). Meanwhile, he loses his gun and gets beat up each time he runs into a male replicant, and more or less has his life saved by a replicant both times.
    It was really hard for me to see how Deckard would be comparable to the kind of characters played by Richard Roundtree or Fred Williamson. They don’t work for The Man. They don’t hunt and kill brothers. And they don’t mistreat the ladies. Although, like Deckard, they are often happy to just get out of the situation alive, and maybe a little richer. Rutger Hauer (Roy) actually seemed more like a typical blaxploitatin hero to me – getting his revenge on The Man and going down in flames.
    There is something to this idea, though. Maybe Blade Runner is like a blaxploitation movie seen through the eyes of the white cop whose job it is to kill the black people or run them out of town. And Harrison Ford plays the white cop who finally questions the system after all the shit goes down at the end of the movie.
    Also, I was thinking about the music, and wondering what it might mean if Vangelis is the Replicant equivalent of Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield or even the above-mentioned Marvin Gaye. I can only conclude that Replicants do not have the funk. Someone get them the mothership connection stat!
    And now I’m wondering if Blade Runner and films like Universal Soldier or The Terminator or even The Matrix might not belong in a new catogory, Replicanxploitation movies. See those more-human-than-humans kick some flabby human ass!


  4. You may have just tainted — although not in a bad way — not only my some-time-in-the-near-future reread of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but also my probable first read of Richard K. Morgan’s latest novel which, ironically enough, is titled Black Man in the UK market, but has the more politically correct title of Thirteen in the U.S. market.
    To make matters even better (or worse, if you like), some critics claim that Black(sploitation)Man/Thirteen is Morgan’s expansion on Dick’s concept. A quick look at the synopsis on Amazon may draw reactions like “Hey, hasn’t this been done already?” But it’ll be interesting to see what Morgan did with the idea.
    I definitely enjoyed (and when I say “enjoyed,” I mean with extreme discomfort) Morgan’s Market Forces, which is a near-future corporate SF tale set in the rough-and-tumble world of conflict investment. Comparing that novel to our “real” world, I’ve already watched that story nudge its way toward being disturbingly prophetic.
    — Chuck


  5. Having recently read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as well as Alan E. Nourse’s Bladerunner and William Burroughs’ treatment of that story (Blade Runner) and now having watched Ridley Scott’s “Final Cut” of the film, I don’t think you need to worry about any one of these spoiling the others.
    I think the dystopian mood of the movie is closer to Burroughs book, although many of the themes from Philip K. Dick’s book are surprisingly well preserved. However, [spoiler alert?] the protagonist in Philip K. Dick’s book is not an android. Also, he is not especially cool: he comes across as a public servant whose job just happens to take him into the field, plus he’s married and owns a (fake) sheep and has to wear a lead codpiece to protect his manhood from ambient radiation. But he is generally more effective at ‘retiring’ androids than in the movie – and he doesn’t preferentially kill female androids. Also, rather than forcing Rachael to have sex with him, he is instead seduced by her.
    Come to think of it, Philip K. Dick’s character is much more like a hero from a pulp detective novel – a regular working guy under pressure to close the case, being manipulated by a femme fatale, but as worried about paying the bills and keeping his wife happy as he is about doing his job.
    Anyway, I’m interested in this reworking of the story/themes by Richard K. Morgan, although I’m a bit put off by descriptions of his books as being filled with brutal violence, torture and the like. Sometimes those elements are essential to a story (Joe Lansdale’s “Hap Collins and Leonard Pine” stories come to mind) but frankly they often just seem gratuitous.
    Say, has anyone considered doing a steam-punk version of Blade Runner? Now that would be interesting…


  6. i keep misreading “replicanxploitation” as “republicanxploitation.” might well cover the same films you mention.
    while i’ve found the treatment of women/female replicants in bladerunner depressing, i never broke it down. i must’ve gotten caught on rachel and deckard’s “relationship” and the rest was an oppressive haze. so thanks for pointing out that deckard only kills female replicants and can’t kill male ones. it reminds me of bram stoker’s dracula, actually. iirc, out of maybe 5 1/2 vampires, only 1 1/2 are male and only the women are staked.
    ooo, dropping his gun and anxiety about potency…


  7. mr. dave–
    your description of the book makes me feel like it should’ve been an early sixties/late fifties black comedy starring jack lemmon.


  8. Previously, on the Cultural Gutter, Mr. Dave said:
    >Anyway, I’m interested in this reworking of the story/themes by Richard K. Morgan, although I’m a bit put off by descriptions of his books as being filled with brutal violence, torture and the like.
    Judging from what I saw in Market Forces, I thought the violence fit well. Although, to potentially complicate the issue, I sort of perceived the violence on three different levels at once:
    1. On one level, the violence seemed like the kind of thing that certain people, especially certain people in a highly competitive business environment, might be half a step away from considering integrating into some or all of their lifestyle (personal, and professional, but more professional) were it not our society’s norms and laws; or maybe it’s more accurate to say…
    2. Assuming that a certain society-wide shift occurred in our world, the brand of violence in Market Forces might very well be something those aforementioned people would adopt, either gleefully or with some sense of duty. (As I write this out, it occurs to me that the first two perceptual levels might actually co-exist in the same perceptual level, but it still feels like two (slightly) different levels to me)
    3. On yet another level, it felt like satire — in fact, quite a few people classify Market Forces that way. Although it didn’t seem so satirical that I couldn’t imagine bits and pieces of it actually happening, leading those aforementioned “certain people” into living a kind of self satire. Maybe the book could also be classified as “speculative self satire.” (Terrific. I just made myself giggle creating a new subgenre.)
    >Sometimes those elements are essential to a story (Joe Lansdale’s “Hap Collins and Leonard Pine” stories come to mind) but frankly they often just seem gratuitous.
    Is this a chance to compare and contrast between Joe Lansdale and Richard Morgan?
    Well…not that I’ve waited for such an opportunity, but since it popped up…
    I read the entire Hap Collins and Leonard Pine series (along with a related short story in one of Lansdale’s collections) during a Lansdale spree after Carol suggested him one too many times.
    While I realize that the Collins/Pine series (plus novels like Cold in July and others) fit in more with the “thriller” genre, his skill as a horror writer shines through (or should I say “darkens everything”?). Specifically, in that series he’s very good with what some horror writers call “the horror you have to face,” or, to put my spin on it, “the horror you have the option to face (or not).”
    To put things in VERY simplistic terms, I’d split the setting of the Collins/Pine series into two parts:
    1. “Normal society”
    2. A seedy underworld populated by violent thugs, perverts, militant racists, prostitutes (both willing and otherwise), the worst kinds of pornographers, drug dealers, wealthy people up to no good, other people of questionable morals seeking all manner of ill-gotten gain, etc. etc.
    Then there’s Hap and Leonard, who are sort of in between. Call them 1.5, sitting on the border. (Peter Straub had a good essay about “border lands” in horror, but I can’t remember where that was.) Hap and Leonard try to live in normal society, although not without their frustrations and a few incidents here and there. They’d prefer to live among slightly more decent people, but they tend to get inconvenienced and annoyed (hell, endangered) when the seedy underworld intrudes on their personal territory or hurts people they know. (Makes me wonder what would happen if the seedy underworld intruded past Hap and Leonard’s borderland all the way into “normal society.” Would normal society completely bring the hammer down and try to bust up the underworld? Probably not, since the two worlds do the rare bit of business sometimes. Never mind my tangential musings.)
    Referring back to the idea of “horror you have the option to face”, it seems like Lansdale gives Hap and Leonard (and other characters) plenty of room and plenty of time to just walk away from the problems of that other world, to ignore those problems, pretend it all doesn’t exist, and just live their lives with a sort of feigned ignorant bliss (since they know all about world 2) alongside the people in normal society who live in genuine ignorant bliss. (Maybe you can contrast this idea about the “option to walk away” with the discussion about inescapable fantasy in the comments at Dave’s last article.)
    In a way, that seedy underworld seems semi-Lovecraftian in that it’s a reality hidden behind our own — maybe you know absolutely nothing about it, maybe you know a little something about it and choose to look the other way. And even though that hidden world might not have incomprehensibly monstrous gods — merely perverted thugs who’ll use every hole you have until those holes can’t be used any more before the thugs use up the rest of you then torture and kill you — you can still be destroyed if you cross over into that world or even get too close to it.
    But anyway, Lansdale isn’t Lovecraft (not dissing Lovecraft). Despite the fact that he has Hap writing in the first person, he doesn’t make Hap Collins and Leonard Pine retreat to the quiet solitude of their studies to compose frightful missives to the people of a world in need of warning, no matter how much the World might disbelieve such a fantastic account and doubt the sanity of those who composed it.
    Nope. Lansdale makes Hap and Leonard load up their shot guns for a road trip to World 2 to deliver a wide-load of ass kick. In the end, maybe it’s all just about bravery. (Have I mentioned bravery yet? Guess I just did. And no, I’m not going to write fan fiction pitting Hap Collins and Leonard Pine against Lovecraftian horrors.)
    Um…was I going to mention Market Forces and Richard Morgan?
    Yeah, I was.
    The society in Market Forces still has “normal society” and the seedy underworld, but now the two are largely merged. And now you know exactly where the seedy underworld is.
    One part of it is still where it’s always been, wallowing in the dirt among the (now almost hopelessly) underprivileged peoples living in the newly cordoned off areas requiring permits to get out. (These people know how to gate a community.) Another part of the underworld has been integrated into the corporate world, and it’s not only out in the open, it’s TELEVISED, especially the armored car duels; and the business-oriented cable TV channels practically double as sports channels.
    Even some world events — widely ignored in our times — are a bit more out in the open. In the society we know, some people — including business professionals (who, I’ve noticed, tend to be ignorantly blissful) — might go their entire lives without knowing about brutal regional revolutions, ethnic cleansing, and paid thugs burning people’s crops. But in the corporate environment of Market Forces, it’s actually good business know about these “small wars” (a term used frequently in the novel).
    The “normal” and “seedy” elements can also be found within individual characters: they’ll invite you over to their house for a nice dinner and a fun evening, but then a couple days later they could just as easily have you tied to a chair, taking a mallet to your kneecaps if you screw up things for the company.
    If I were to adapt Lansdale’s characters for the setting in Market Forces, I might give Hap and Leonard some Armani suits, MBAs, a touch of borderline sociopathy, and a love of money rather than their regular occasional dire need for money. (Did I just scare anybody else with that? I know I scared myself. Hm. Yeah. While some of the characters in Market Forces might be nice to you and let you use their backyard pool every once in a while, I’d probably feel safer with Hap and Leonard as they are.)
    If I were to rank the intensity or quality of the violence in Market Forces against the Collins/Pine series, I’d say it actually has a slightly more vicious streak, if you can believe that. But I think it still works well with the story.
    I can’t comment directly on Morgan’s Black Man (Thirteen) since I haven’t read it yet. Judging from the synopsis, it sounds like the genetically engineered “Thirteens” are a reawakening of a long-forgotten violent alpha male thing. (Note to self: for the love of god, finish reading Peter Watt’s Blindsight some time in the near future.) So, in this case, the violence in Thirteen — or maybe an enhanced level of violence — will be introduced to a society completely unfamiliar with it, whether it’s been contained in some underworld or not.
    Also, getting a little closer to the original topic…
    >Say, has anyone considered doing a steam-punk version of Blade Runner? Now that would be interesting…
    My mind just drifted past steam punk and went all the way back to the golem story. Now I’m wondering about a Philip K. Dick style treatment of Rabbi Loew. Maybe that’s what he did with Deckard — although Deckard didn’t build the androids.


  9. The comparison between the Golem story and Blade Runner (and possibly Richard K. Morgan’s new book) seems so obvious, and yet I’d never thought of it before. Very interesting!
    I did a quick search to see if this comparison had occured to anyone else (or everyone else but me) and it seems there was just recently a scholarly article on the subject. Chuck, do you happen to publish academic papers in the Journal of Film and Video under the name Erik G. Wilson?
    Also, in my google-quest, I happened to come across someone who saw parallels between Blade Runner and Logan’s Run. So now I have this vision in my head of a Golem being chased by a Rabbi yelling “Run Runner!”


  10. I think I like your comparison, even if it doesn’t always fit perfectly. I’d say that it might be interesting to compare alot of SciFi and action movies to blaxploitation, for that matter. I also find Mr Dave’s idea of a steampunk version rather interesting…


  11. Happy to find this article – nearly 11 years after it was posted (ironically, in 2019!) I just was listening to “Life is a Gamble” for the first time on Spotify and I immediately realized it was the inspiration for “Love Theme” – one of my favorites off the Blade Runner soundtrack. At least according to Google, you are the only other person to have made this connection. Really like how you took that as a starting point for this analysis.


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