It’s the death scene that you never forget. Roy Batty, naked but for a pair of shorts, dove in his hand, delivering one of the most elegant speeches on the nature of life that has probably been delivered in a science fiction film. It is an undoubted highlight from a film that has become one of the most important in the genre of science fiction, as well as the medium of cinema itself.
Like 2001:A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane or The Godfather, it is hard to imagine that there was a time when Blade Runner never existed, that it was a Philip K Dick novel by the name of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
The film itself is the dictionary definition of a cult classic, going from troubled production, to box office failure, to cult favourite on VHS and Laserdisc, to being granted a director’s cut; and then eventually a Final Cut, a remastering from its director twenty-five years after its premiere, giving the film an aura of an incomplete work until that silver anniversary.
In some ways it is a hard film to actually love, and yet so easy to do so once you let it in. How many times have you heard of people saying they have tried to watch it but they couldn’t quite finish it, or actually enjoy it?
Maybe you are not supposed to enjoy it? Maybe you need to appreciate it or learn to love it? It features one of the most brilliant pieces of world building ever accomplished in a Hollywood film, and yet its world is the bleakest you could imagine. For audiences going into it based on the idea of it starring Han Solo, with direction from the Alien guy and a poster promising flying cars and a stunning futuristic Los Angeles backdrop, it is easy to expect a spectacular thrill ride but instead be left bemused and depressed by its darkly melancholy bounty hunter narrative about androids desperately wanting to hold on to life, no matter the cost.
I was sixteen when I first watched it, and was never quite sure what to make of it on that first viewing. But I didn’t hate it. I recorded the film off television, complete with a Mark Kermode documentary that aired after it, and even though first thoughts of the film were mixed, I found that I couldn’t get its images, production design and score out of my head. One finds their breath very easily taken away by that opening shot, while the Vangelis score must surely rank as one of the greatest ever composed for a science fiction film, a perfect listening experience on its own, or with the images it accompanies.
Ridley Scott’s direction and masterful use of imagery would give the science fiction genre some of its most beautiful visuals, from the cityscapes, to the Spinners, to the greatest use of rain in a feature film. The world of Blade Runner is drenched in atmosphere and dread.
Financed by Bud Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio, the next Star Wars was expected, but with a slower pace and darkened setting, the film put many off and, like fellow 1982 release The Thing, became a dud in the eyes of many, eclipsed by the optimism of ET, left to be rediscovered by the VHS generation where it would ensnare fans who would constantly rewatch it for the film’s rich attention to detail.
In the end, it came to be regarded as a beautiful counter view to the equally gorgeous sentimentality of Spielberg’s film, that sci-fi didn’t have to be family friendly and full of hope; it could be darker and uglier, suggesting that humanity, and its future, could be rested on darker feelings of despair and uncertainty.
The original release of Blade Runner had an exposition heavy voice-over, but worst of all a coda made up of outtakes from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to suggest a positive ending where Deckard and Rachel escape to happiness. It was an incredible false note. The 1992 director’s cut got rid of both these things.
Blade Runner could never be a film with a happy ending. How could a world like this have a part as beautiful as that road that leads to The Outlook Hotel? The closing of those elevator doors to something uncertain was the only way to finish the story…until now.
However Blade Runner 2049 turns out, the original will always stand tall, like classics that have come before, films that feel as if they have been part of our cinematic fabric for eternity. Its darkness is beautiful, its world as brilliantly constructed as any science fiction film before, and as it gets older it gets better, even with its problems and never-ending building of alternative versions. It is a film that will never be lost, unlike those tears in rain.