There are period films so influential they become the reference through which we imagine the era they portray. Seminal works like Schindler’s List (1993) and Barry Lyndon (1975) define an archetypical conception for the eras they portray (the Holocaust and Georgian England respectively). The 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner was so influential in creating a richly textured portrayal of the coming techno/societal future, it’s as if every cinematographer, art director and aspiring sci-fi writer since has accepted Blade Runner’s vision of 2019 as inevitable and irrefutable and merely reinterpret its construct.
Now an established classic, it is hard to believe that Blade Runner received very mixed reviews on its theatrical release in 1982. Based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, written by Philip K. Dick in 1968, it was the first big sci-fi film since Star Wars and its sequels. It was unjustly compared to these very different kinds of sci-fi movies, and derided for failing to fully recoup its initial $39 million budget.
Mixing action with calm, steady exposition, the film actually creates the gestalt of a noirish future through minute details. Every hint, every aspect of its world is both connected with our own and is also otherwise fully independent – with its own logic, technology, psychology, ethics and aesthetics. There is so much to take in visually, intellectually and emotionally and this film simply can’t spoonfeed its meaning.
Synthetic people, called replicants, are created for and relegated to ‘off-world’ colonies. Occasionally, a few become upset with their subjugation and limited life spans. The film begins with a group of them having killed their human supervisors, and heading to Los Angeles to meet their maker, Tyrell (Joe Turkell), to request he extend their life spans past the allotted four years. This kind of incident is common enough to have sparked a specialist class of police called ‘Blade Runners’. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), once a champion hunter of replicants, is called back from retirement to go take them down. Deckard is introduced to an ‘Ultra Breed Replicant’ named Rachel (Sean Young) by Tyrell. Deckard has a series of violent encounters with each renegade replicant while simultaneously falling in love with Rachel. Rachel, through artificial memory production, had not been aware of her replicant status and is now suffering an epic existential crisis. Rachel’s dilemma complicates Deckard’s sense of mission, and even forces him to second guess the authenticity of his own humanity. The trail of bloodshed leads inevitably to a showdown between Deckard and ‘Alpha Replicant’ Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) that ends more on a note of philosophical closure than traditional action climax.
The Vangelis soundtrack is incredible. It adds beautifully to the immensity of the visuals, while never eclipsing the emotional undercurrents. The scene-stealer of Blade Runner may be the incredible set design and photography, but what really lifts this movie are the philosophical undertones: What is the essence of being human? Is life’s value measured by longevity or by how time is spent? And what responsibility does man have when he creates life? It’s the old Frankenstein question posed on the cusp of a new millennium in which it may soon become a real issue of bioethics.
There is a real debate over whether the director’s cut or the original American theatrical release is superior. The original release tends to be derided for its optimistic ending and the use of voiceover narration by Harrison Ford. The director’s cut has a more abrupt and ambiguous ending, excises the narration and includes the hyper-symbolic ‘Unicorn Scene’. While most auteur viewers prefer the director’s cut, I have to admit I miss the narration from the original release. As well as adding exposition on 2019 society, and generally being well written, the voiceover is a key element in the overall ‘futuristic noir’ the film seeks to create. The truth is both cuts have strengths and weaknesses and as Blade Runner deserves more than one viewing, you might be best served to see both cuts and decide for yourself.
Blade Runner holds up very well, even 20 years after its release. But with its enduring influence on art direction in film, television, video games and music videos, how could it not?
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer(s): Philip K. Dick (novel), Hampton Fancher, David Webb Peoples and Roland Kibbee (voiceovers)
Runtime(s): 117 minutes (director’s cut)
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.