It took a long time for me to realise I loved Blade Runner. For my first viewing of the film, I dared to see it on 35mm in an actual cinema. Back in the days when film bookers gave a damn about showing a varied range of films. UCI cinemas used to have a 7pm Tuesday timeslot named “Director’s Chair”. A weekly dose of a new arthouse, a missed indie or a classic doing the repertory rounds. I had gone in with my then girlfriend who had adored the film. I was an arrogant film viewer going in green. Unmindful of what I know now. When we came out of the director’s cut of the film, my girlfriend was beaming. Joyful. Once again enraptured with the sci-fi she loved. My verdict: “3-star movie. I thought it was alright I guess.” That’s right folks. It looked like two doomed love affairs were on the cards.
On this umpteenth visit to this smog-ridden, fire-bellowing version of Los Angles, I once again found myself emotional. Blade Runner is a film which rewards its fans with secrets on multiple viewings. In my more recent viewings, I’ve found myself overcome by the film’s atmosphere. Despite the bleakness. Regardless of the distance that the film’s screenplay seems to have from the audience. The poignant questions Blade Runner raises still punch through its tough, cynical exterior. The argument on whether Deckard is a replicant can rage on. What’s more pertinent is what kind of world does he inhabit in which a robot shows him truly how to live? Despite a lot of shoe leather cutting, the film runs at a deliberate pace. Its plot still feels ponderous at times. With story beats that never fit snug into the more typical grooves of a standardised blockbuster. Yet by its end, Roy Batty’s powerful monologue parts the sea of despondency. And the film once again lingers fondly in my mind.
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It’s easy to dislike Blade Runner. The film may start with belching fire clouds illuminating the sky, but there’s not a lot of warmth. Five ‘Replicants’ escape their slave-like space colony and stow away on a ship back to Earth. As synthetic humans, they are built by the Tyrel Corporation to last for 4 years. Their plan on Earth is simple. More life. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a burnt-out ex-cop who has now become a ‘Blade Runner’. Considered one of the best, the position is little more than a glorified bounty hunter. He is tasked to find a group of Replicants led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and “retire” them. Things become more complicated when he finds himself falling for Rachel (Sean Young), an assistant of Tyrel who is also a replicant, unknown to her at the time. When gazing at the bare bones of the narrative, there doesn’t seem much to grab hold. Every character introduced is opaque. Most are difficult to root for, with many of them simply boiled down to their prime directives.
Hampton Fancher’s original take on Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a sparse affair. In Dangerous Days, a comprehensive documentary about Blade Runner, Fancher is honest about his wanting to make a quick buck writing a movie. He wasn’t enamoured with Dick’s story but envisaged a minimalist detective tale which operated within a few small rooms and apartments. Enter Ridley Scott. The Tyneside filmmaker had originally been circling an adaptation of Dune at the time. With Empire Strikes Back (1980) just released, and Star Wars fresh in people’s minds, Scott looked set for a grand space opera. The director of Alien (1979) taking part in some intergalactic warfare? Makes sense.
At first, Scott turned Blade Runner (originally titled Dangerous Days) down. However, the loss of his older brother Frank to cancer had Scott needing to do something. Dune fades out of view; Blade Runner pulls into focus. But Scott had bigger ideas than a simple noir shifting in and out of some dusty apartment rooms. He wanted to see outside and feel the environment. It’s Scott’s decision to give the city a look, a feel, and a voice which elevates Blade Runner into more than a simplistic sci-fi noir. It becomes a benchmark.
“The set is a character”; Ridley Scott, Dangerous Days. Such a line is as cliché as they come. How often do we hear something similar about a film location? New York? London? We often hear of locations being a character of the film themselves. The same is certainly true of Blade Runner. But the difference here is the sheer density of the vision. Films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977) paved the way for so much sci-fi world-building in the way of effects. However, the realisation of Los Angeles seen within the film, from the overcrowded streets to the further melding of various cultures, brought forth an eerie prophecy on how we view films set in the future. The cluttered sky rises seem to hark back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). While such an overpopulated world can be noted in the likes of Soylent Green (1973). Yet those examples still don’t have a dystopia as fully grasped as what is seen here. Scott’s universe is built in such a way that it feels like every piece of dystopian media made afterwards is borrowing from it.
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Negative reviews point toward the thinness of the human story. An understandable criticism. But the oppressive nature of Blade Runner’s world is the aspect that infers the narrative. One description of the film on the Dangerous Days documentary refers to Blade Runner as the “last analogue sci-fi film”; a film in which the effects are not just to show off what tech can do, but to inform the story. A world of product placement emblazed on massive screens, yet it feels like no one can afford the products. Real animals no longer exist. This is a ruined landscape. Smoke heavy. Always raining. A perfect world for a beleaguered ex-cop to willingly “retire” replicants. Beings who have been built to provide slave labour. They are viewed as sub-human. Even the test given to these humanoids to determine their humanity is done by gauging their emotions. Their lack of ability to visualise things. The thinness is the point. An all-enveloping endpoint to where continuous consumption and dehumanisation bring us. The beat-down lived-in nature of the world is in turn shown in the likes of Deckard. A world-weary cynicism lifted from the noir genre that Blade Runner borrows from. In my first viewing of Blade Runner, I too found myself wanting more “explanation” to the characters. In further screenings it hit me. The details are in the faces of these people.
The production of Blade Runner was turbulent. In a way that bled into the end product. A gruelling shoot of long hours filled with rain, smoke and filth wasn’t helped by the film’s combative director. Ridley’s process brought constant tension to the screen. He couldn’t get hold of his usual crew. While the unionised American crew grew frustrated with Scott’s methodical pace and directorial style. Defamatory t-shirts were made mocking Scott’s desire to be called governor after Scott mentioned to the press his preference for a British crew. However, when the financial backers are threatening to pull the finance out of your production or fire you, it’s easy to see why things can get a little tense.
The conflict was also found within the cast. Coming off the back of two stratospherically successes (Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back), Harrison Ford found himself constantly at odds with many around him. “It was a long slog,” Ford mentions in a 2017 Vanity Fair article “I didn’t find it that physically difficult—I thought it was mentally difficult.” There’s a feeling that the star would like to have been around Lucas and Spielberg again.
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Ford’s decision to push himself into darker territory landed him in Blade Runner country. Struggling to find the right chemistry with Sean Young in her breakthrough role. Meanwhile, Ford’s relationship with Ridley Scott was strained. The struggle is seemingly a cornerstone to the whole “Is Deckard a replicant” argument. Ford told an interviewer during a BBC One Hollywood Greats segment: “I thought the audience deserved one human being on screen that they could establish an emotional relationship with. I thought I had won Ridley’s agreement to that, but in fact, I think he had a little reservation about that. I think he wanted to have it both ways.”
However, Blade Runner is one of the rare cases in which such conflict helps inflect the movie. Compounding the darkness and cynicism of the world. Baking in the tension between the characters and highlighting the isolation found in such a dehumanised world. To paraphrase something that was said about the film on The Lessons of the Screenplay podcast: “You need that darkness to believe in the light.”
The dour nature of the film is certainly identified with the infamous “love scene” at the film’s midpoint. Particularly around the time of the release of the film’s sequel Blade Runner: 2049 (2017). A strong highlight of current film culture thinking when it came to discourse and attitudes to rape culture. The scene, which producer Michael Deeley wanted to be softened, certainly has its detractors. Many readings are deeply critical of Deckard’s aggressive approach toward Rachel, while Vangelis’ hauntingly romantic jazz score juxtaposes the hostile action. Such readings aren’t wrong, however, there seems to be a desire for Deckard as more of a clear-cut hero rather than the deeply flawed, desensitised protagonist that he is. For this writer, if Deckard is human, then this is a man directing power over something he deems to have power over. Something the film layers within the narrative throughout. If Deckard is a replicant, then he is trying to exhibit the kind of human traits he only has vague concepts of. In the worst way. When set against the overall tone of the movie and the film noir underpinnings, the moment is coherent within the film’s universe. Once again exposing the dehumanisation of an ex-cop whose job is “retiring” ex-slaves.
The problem lies in that Deckard is a scummy person to have an emotional relationship with. Whether or not you believe he is a replicant. Despite Ford’s frustrations with the production, his vulnerable performance here is perhaps one of his most memorable. A dark performance which rears its head again in films like Frantic (1988) or What Lies Beneath (2000). Deckard’s problematic nature is the type of cinematic gristle that many films don’t like audiences to chew on. Sometimes understandably so. But in Blade Runner, Deckard’s ugliness exposes the fluctuating nature of the film’s characters. It muddies the waters of who we’re supposed to root for and where the emotional output lies. The realisation of Roy Batty as the possessor of the film’s humanity is still an incredible sleight of hand shift. While at first characterised as the villain of the piece, only Batty holds the self-awareness we expect from Deckard. He loves, grieves and is the only character that truly reminisces. Hauer’s performance is a poetic one. A display which shifts what is expected of the antagonist. A neo-noir Colonel Kurtz. Harry Lime went neon. Bringing forth the same indefinable charm when he was seen again in films such as The Hitcher (1988).
If Blade Runner grabs a viewer, its ugly romance drills into them. In 1982 Blade Runner didn’t grab viewers. Much like John Carpenter’s The Thing, Blade Runner was bludgeoned at the box office by Steven Spielberg’s E.T. 1982 was a year about joyful sci-fi. And yet the film endured. Its many different renditions – one of the first films to be so bold with its versions – have provided beguilement. Its retrofitted landscapes, influenced by the likes of comics such as Heavy Metal and Mobius, only helped the film prevail. Its design is still a marvel to behold. Newer films may feel more polished, but most never feel as real.
Yet beneath the visual, and at times because of it, lies a challenging ideal of what makes us who we are. Films such as Ex-Machina (2014) or music videos such as George Michael’s ‘Freeek’ have kindly liberated parts of Scott’s film, but few media examples have lingered in the minds such as this. Roger Ebert’s coolness on the film, broke away after multiple viewings. Finally conceding it as one of the great movies. It’s a film that demands time to be given to it before it rewards you. When Special Effects Supervisor David Dryer first watched the film, he was a part of, it broke his heart. Only four other people were in the cinema. Yet even then he felt that someone someday will notice what lay within the movie. Now 40 years on, people have settled into the groove the film creates. Blade Runner is a film that takes time. Its ruined landscape may break apart relationships that weren’t meant to be, but it forges great bonds with those who give it a chance.
Blade Runner was released in the UK on 9th September 1982.