2019, a chaotic, decaying Los Angeles afflicted with crime and perpetual rains brought on through climate change. Anyone who has the means has fled to off-earth settlements and space colonies. Three androids designed for strictly extraterrestrial use have escaped and returned to LA to track down their genius inventor; they intend to have their lifespan, limited to four years, extended. Rick Deckard, a ‘blade runner’ or terminator of rogue replicants, is hired to find and destroy the dangerous androids.
Ridley Scott decisively changed the way we view the near future with Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982, 1992). Scott’s films were perfectly judged for their moment. George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) had drawn cinema audiences back to the possibility of watching science fiction features, which by the mid-1970s had seemed like an exhausted genre. Lucas recast sci-fi as a narrative offering epic thrills accompanied by the reassuring conventions of an earlier Hollywood moment. Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1979) and E.T., the Extra Terrestrial (1983) triumphantly combined science fantasy with the director’s own family-values aesthetic. Ridley Scott’s two contributions to the newly popular genre posed darker and deeper questions: What is within us that wants to lock E.T. and the Alien together in the same room, just to see what might happen?
The creation of Blade Runner was a fraught, highly complex process, requiring the coordination of a multitude of talents and nerves of steel. Everyone who contributed to Blade Runner agreed that it was the compelling commitment and vision of its director that finally brought the film to the screen. Ridley Scott was born in Tyne and Wear, England, in 1937, and was one of the first students to attend the Royal College of Art’s newly established film school in the late 1950s. After a spell in New York he joined the BBC, where he worked first as a set designer, and ultimately as a director for highly successful crime series; in 1967 he moved to commercial advertising, directing over 2,000 ads, which was ‘really’ his ‘film school’ (Scott 2005: 48). Ridley Scott’s first feature was The Duellists (1977), based on a story by Joseph Conrad. Conceived by Scott as a variant on the Western and made for a mass audience, The Duellists, to the director’s chagrin, was restricted on release to the art-house circuit, where it achieved limited but critical success, highly praised for its ‘visual flair’. Scott’s breakthrough came with Alien (1979), which confirmed his genius for creating complex visual environments that powerfully articulate the emotional world of their inhabitants.
In each of his films Scott takes firm control of art direction to achieve a highly complex ‘layering’ of image; for Scott, ‘a film is like a seven-hundred-layer layer cake’ (Sammon 1996: 47). This visual complexity certainly contributed to Blade Runner’s eventual success. On release, the film fell far short of even covering its costs at the box office, and critical response was confused. But again, the moment was propitious; the increasing use of video players in the home market meant that, for the first time, viewers could pause and re-run sequences from feature films at will, and the semiotic richness of Blade Runner in particular invited this kind of scrutiny. When Deckard interrogates Leon’s snapshot of his hotel room via Esper, the state-of-the-art police computer which, according to the film’s production notes, enables ‘investigators to search a room without even being there’ (Sammon 1996: 146), he was anticipating our paranoid world of contemporary surveillance, and the ways in which we now interact with virtual, digitised environments. In this scene, Deckard is a metonymy for the Blade Runner obsessive, pausing and poring over the laden imagery of each shot in the film, if not indeed a metaphor for the avid gaze of every engaged cinema audience, which has always dreamt of truly entering the illusory world before them.
Like The Duellists, Blade Runner is that very rare film, a successful – if loose – adaptation from an existing literary property. Philip K. Dick can be accurately described as a ‘visionary’ SF author – he experienced intense, altered states, in one of which he was convinced that he was speaking with God. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) was in part a response to the corrupting influence of the American involvement in Vietnam, then at its peak. But Philip K. Dick’s radical unease with the world had older roots. While researching for his novel The Man in the High Castle (1962), which describes an America where National Socialist Germany and imperial Japan have won the Second World War, Dick came across the testimony of SS guards stationed at death camps in Poland. One entry described how, to their annoyance, the soldiers were ‘kept awake at night by the cries of starving children’ (Sammon 1996: 16). Dick became obsessed – not too strong a word – with the thought that any individual might begin to loose supposedly innate emotional responses to the point where they could not properly be described as ‘human’ any more. Dick explored this perception in short stories and novels over three decades, and linked it to a closely related anxiety: the possibility of creating perfect ‘simulacra’ through faultless replication. Where would true authenticity be located, in a world of perfectly copied objects, even persons?
The combination, in Blade Runner, of Philip K. Dick’s existential concerns about the nature of the human essence, and Ridley Scott’s complex visual intelligence, was again fortuitous (Wheale 1995: 101). The film appeared at a transitional moment in the rarefied world of academic critical theory, where structuralist preoccupations with sign theory and semiotics from the 1960s and 1970s, under critique from deconstruction and gender-based analyses, were combining with the emergent disciplines of film and cultural studies. Blade Runner became one of the most rewarding ‘film texts’ through which to negotiate the transition from semiotics, via deconstruction and gender studies, to the emerging agenda of ‘the postmodern’, and whatever lay beyond (Zizek 1993: 9). Scott’s ‘future noir’ judged the mood of its time very astutely and also became a key inspiration for William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984), masterpiece of the Cyberpunk generation. Following release of the 1992 Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut, widening interest in the film seemed to elide all distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘mass-popular’ forms of discursive attention.
One of the ways in which Blade Runner intrigues is its combination of a reassuringly familiar convention that is placed in an utterly new and disconcerting context. Where Lucas and Spielberg evoked the values of classical Hollywood features to engage their audiences, Scott characteristically drew on a darker heritage. Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is immediately recognisable as a ‘gumshoe’, a freelance detective straight out of 1940s Hollywood. Deckard’s job description, as in the film title, was found by one of the screenwriters, Hampton Fancher, in a minor work by William Burroughs, who in turn may have taken it from Victorian underworld slang. As the hired assassin of desperate and dangerous androids, Deckard is a ‘blade runner’ in several senses, not least that he is himself poised dangerously on a knife’s edge.