The legacy of Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott) has been profound in the past thirty-five years, leading up to Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve). The film set the standards for the depiction of cyberpunk in media, before being superseded by The Matrix (1999, the Wachowskis). The ground-breaking visuals set a technological benchmark, while the film introduced characters and quotable dialogue that have been incorporated into the greater pop culture arena. Video games, such as Chris Jones’ Tex Murphy series and Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher, replicated that ol’ Blade Runner magic, while Johnny Mnemonic (1995, Robert Longo) and Max Headroom (1987-1988) borrowed the cyberpunk elements as best as they could.
Outright parodying or “ripping off” Blade Runner appears to have been a taboo thing to do, yet Full Moon’s Trancers (1984, Charles Band) has been noted many times over as being a low-budget combination of Blade Runner and Terminator (1984, James Cameron). This description of the film seems apropos, but it is not particularly insightful, as most comparisons between the films are superficial at best, simply pointing out the glaring, obvious commonalities. There is quite a bit more to the relationship between Blade Runner and Trancers, much being rooted in foundational (neo-) noir and futurism elements. Trancers also re-appropriates unique qualities and scenarios from Blade Runner into its narrative, as well. The end result is that Trancers certainly lifts and incorporates much from Blade Runner into its fold, yet despite this it, remains both a unique and interesting film. It’s not a parody or homage; yet it is not quite ripping off either. This essay seeks to explore a bit more of these commonalities, past the surface-level observations, and hopefully demonstrate that Trancers is a more robust film than typically perceived.
Give Me the Story, Pal
Trancers is the first in a six-movie franchise from Full Moon Pictures, which created other iconic series such as Puppet Master and Subspecies. In Trancers, Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) is a Trooper from the future who hunts down and kills Trancers, folks who have fallen under the control of psychic and arch-villain Whistler (Michael Stefani). Whistler, in an attempt to overthrow the government of the future, time travels back to the past and begins to kill ancestors of important government council members. Deth is sent “down the line” to protect the various ancestors and stop Whistler. Deth’s ancestor is the journalist Phil Dethton while Whistler inhabits an LAPD detective. Deth’s girlfriend is Leena (Helen Hunt), a spunky, quasi-punk girl who acts as a guide to Deth in the past. Leena doesn’t believe Deth’s time traveling story at first, but an encounter as a Trancer who is a mall Santa steers her to be his partner in crime. Deth ultimately is able to save the ancestor of the final council member that is alive and obliterates Whistler for good, freeing the detective from his conscience.
As can be seen, the time traveling and killing of ancestors mirrors the Terminator formula, while the futuristic elements and hunting down Trancers mimics the Blade Runner formula.
Visions of the Future
The bulk of Trancers takes place in the (then) present of 1985, with its depictions of the future concentrated in the film’s first act. Both Trancers and Blade Runner take place in a futuristic version of Los Angeles, with Blade Runner being set in 2019 while Trancers is set in 2247. Blade Runner’s LA is shown as a sprawling megalopolis, with towering skyscrapers and smokestacks. Trancer’s LA is in post-apocolyptica, with the destroyed city being partially submerged underwater. Yet it can be implied that there is a rebuilt LA nearby, referred to as Angel City, as the opening shots in Trancers show a diner a-glow in neon lights and endless steam emitting from the streets, echoing both street level locations in Blade Runner as well as general noir conventions of shadows-n-steam. Flying cars appear to be the preferred method of travel in both films. In a strange twist, Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) iconic car, as designed by Gene Winfield for Blade Runner, appears outside the diner in Trancers, giving both films a tangible, direct association (Source: http://media.bladezone.com/contents/film/interviews/gene-winfield/).
Advertising of brand name products is important in both films. Blade Runner has the iconic image of the Coke ad on the side of the skyscraper. The futurist diner in Trancer’s opening scene also has Coke ads prominently placed on the wall. The futures in both films also embrace the idea of synthetics. Replicants aside, Blade Runner features synthetic owls and snakes, the real deal too impossible to afford. In Trancers, coffee appears to be a rare commodity, as is milk and beef, and Deth has to clarify his order to make sure he gets the real deal.
In both Trancers and Blade Runner, there are off-handed mentions that humans have traveled off of Earth and have occupied a presence among the stars. In Blade Runner, the Nexus-6 Replicants come from the Off-World Colonies, while in Trancers Whistler was supposedly killed in the Outer Rim Planets.
The score for both films is synth heavy, as well, though Trancer’s score doesn’t quite capture the etheralism of Vangelis’ score for Blade Runner. Regardless, the scores of both films give them that futuristic, ambient vibe.
The Usual Suspects
Deckard and Deth aren’t just cops from the future with alliterative last names to each other, they are both specialized cops with a focus on hunting down entities that masquerade as humans; Blade Runners hunt replicants and the Trooper hunts down the Trancers. Both characters' garb of preference is the trench coat and tie that hangs as loose as possible. Deckard and Deth both carry powerful, futuristic pistols, though Deth becomes restricted to using a .38 Colt Detective Special while in the '80s. In a traditional noir fashion, both characters use voice-over, though Deth only narrates the beginning of Trancers while Deckard narrates the international cut of Blade Runner.
Perhaps coincidentally, both Deth and Deckard are introduced to the audience at restaurants; Deckard awaits his turn to patron a mobile noodle restaurant while Deth patrons a mom-and-pop-style diner. Deckard and Deth are both the best at what they do (hunting Replicants, hunting Trancers), yet both characters have to be coaxed onto their assignments. Deckard is an already retired Blade Runner who is coerced back onto the job by his former boss Harry Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh). Deth quits being a Trooper at the beginning of Trancers and intends to ignore the council’s summons until it is revealed his nemesis Whistler is still alive.
Trancers’ Leena and Blade Runner’s Rachael (Sean Young) both lean toward the femme fragile style of female noir characters, though Leena is imbued with street smarts and a punk attitude compared to Rachael’s innocence. Both characters, though, aside from being love interests, act as deux ex machinas for their respective film's protagonists in scenes playing out in nearly verbatim scenarios. In Blade Runner, Deckard is about to be killed by Leon (Brion James), but is saved when Rachael shoots Leon from behind. In Trancers, Deth is about to be shot by a tranced patrolman, but is saved when Leena shoots the policeman from behind.
Whistler and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) share a unique attribute in their strong will and ability to influence others to their bidding. Batty, along with Pris (Daryl Hannah), is able to seduce/intimidate J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) to their cause, while Whistler is able to use his psychic powers to bend folks to his will, turning them into Trancers.
Vought-Kampff and Identity
When Trancers re-appropriates elements from Blade Runner, it inherently takes on some of the film’s themes. In Blade Runner, one of the strongest and most prevailing themes is that of identity. What does it mean to be human, as in what is the real difference between a human and a Replicant? In other examples of Blade Runner, such as the owl and Zora’s (Joanna Cassidy) snake, they’re synthetic, yet they also pass for the real deal. There are countless treatises of Blade Runner and the concept of the simulacrum, but those same questions and musings can be applied to Trancers, as well. As Replicants walk around the streets of Los Angeles, undetected and no different than the other humans, Trancers do, as well. In Blade Runner, Deckard must register a Voight-Kampff test to ascertain if a person is a human or not (and as is evident with Rachael, this distinction becomes problematic), while in Trancers, Jack Deth must use a Trancer-detecting bracelet to tell if an individual is a human or a Trancer.
The distinct form of time traveling that Trancers employs compounds the matter of identity, as well. When Deth inhabits the body of his journalist ancestor, he’s in a precarious position: His mind is Jack Deth from 2247, while his body (along with associated relationships and perceptions from other folks) is Phil Dethton in 1985 [and this is also applicable for the villain Martin Whistler inhabiting LAPD detective Weisling and Trooper McNulty (Art La Fleur) inhabiting a little girl ancestor of his]. Is the identify of Jack/Phil solely dictated by whose consciousness occupies it at the time? To the folks around Jack/Phil, he will be perceived as Phil, so to them, that is his identity (until Jack makes it known otherwise). To the audience who watches Trancers, it’s fairly black and white that the identity belongs to Jack Deth, but for the populace of LA who interact with Deth, this is not the case.
For being a B-film of the '80s and a perceived knock-off of Blade Runner, Trancers is still quite a unique and fun film. Thomerson’s Jack Deth character has to juggle noir detective with fish-out-of-water elements, and he does a wonderful job. Trancers would go on to spawn five more sequels (four of them with Thomerson), becoming a flagship property for Full Moon Pictures.
While true, Trancers incorporates many elements from Blade Runner, both in noir/sci-fi genre conventions as well as unique Blade Runner aspects, the end result is that Trancers is a film that doesn’t give the credit that it is due. Deckard and Deth and their respective films may have much in common, but Trancers is still able to find its own version of the ol’ Blade Runner magic to stand on its own.
Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, and Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s. He can be found at nickdiak.com.