Blade Runner and the Postmodern: A Reconsideration

  • Published 2004


The ambivalence implicit in the two versions of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982; "Director's Cut," 1992) echoes the diverse and divided critical responses to the film(s). Indeed, this film about authenticity and simulation has been so thoroughly interpreted and rewritten—by even its director—that a naive return to the "original" is, perhaps fittingly, untenable. This essay does not advance a new reading, but rather takes as its subject the ideologies of interpretation evident in criticism of Blade Runner, particularly its problematic encounter with postmodernism. In hindsight, this encounter testifies to fundamental ambiguities in the postmodernist enterprise, ambiguities with significant social and political implications. I will argue that postmodern accounts of Blade Runner depend on a series of strategic exclusions. Such accounts effectively displace not only modernist readings of the film, but also questions of narration, genre, popularity, and the specificity of the film medium. Lost amid the theoretical battlefield of the modem and postmodern are the film's material and ideological contexts; Blade Runner'^ cultural intelligibility is blurred by the modem/postmodern exchange. This critical impasse underscores the troubled politics of postmodernism as it confronts commercial narrative and other forms of popular culture. Roughly speaking, critical responses to Blade Runner fall on either side of a modem/ postmodem line. Postmodernist accounts diametrically oppose reading strategies dependent on conventional aesthetic notions (narrative, character, structure, reference, metaphor, symbol, etc.) that collectively we might term modemist. These two approaches entail radically different positions on the nature and function of interpretation. Modemist readings presuppose the film's structural and semiotic depth, in stark contrast to the postmodernist emphasis on its surfaces. Some modemist interpretations discem Utopian fantasies of redemption and transcendence embedded in the film's apocalyptic veneer. A postmodemist approach, by contrast, emphasizes the film's resistance to the interpretive impulse, its voiding of symbolic, Utopian, and narrative meaning. The depthless postmodem surface incorporates fragments of once-meaningful codes and conventions that are now blankly cited without context or referent. The result is not a coherent aesthetic structure but an opaque and resistant pastiche. Interestingly, the two versions of the film document a similar ambivalence about narration, depth, and Utopian potential. The significant changes in the 1992 "Director's Cut" place the "original" in quotation marks, summoning in the process the question of filmic authorship and the much-discussed relation between the cinematic auteur and commercial film production. Furthermore, by foregrounding the quesfion of authenticity, the phenomenon of the "Director's Cut" restages a central concem of both postmodemism and the 1982 film. One might argue that the "Director's Cut" functions as a kind of postmodemist reading of the "original," one that likewise suppresses narrative cues and Utopian intimations. Ridley Scott's 1992 version omits the studio-enforced "happy ending" and Harrison Ford's voice-over narration, and introduces the chic postmodem suggestion—via the unicom dream sequence—that Deckard himself might be a replicant. At the same time, however, the "Director's Cut" is also a modemist gesture. In particular, the voice-overs are a noir genre determinant, and their erasure lessens the film's legibility as commercial narrative in favor of modemist indeterminacy—a tendency supported by the "new," more ambiguous ending. In fact the voice-overs are a touchstone of postmodemist readings. From the perspective of pastiche, the voice-overs are exemplary instances of cultural citation, blank allusions to an incongruous noir sensibility. The voice-overs and "happy ending" are either conventional or opaque, egregious or essential, depending on the critic's vantage point. The 1982 and 1992 versions of Blade Runner thus establish a foundational tension that fuels both modem and postmodem interpretations. Moreover, the genealogy of the dual texts and en-

Cite this paper

@inproceedings{2004BladeRA, title={Blade Runner and the Postmodern: A Reconsideration}, author={}, year={2004} }