Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, Based on the Novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick
Starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Darryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joe Turkel, Joanna Cassidy
Ok, I’m actually scared to review this film. And the reason why is that it is my favorite. Of all time. With a special place in my heart that big, I realize how hard it is going to be to stay objective and fair, but I will try my best. But seriously, this is my favorite movie.
In the futuristic year of 2019, Los Angeles has become a dark and depressing metropolis, filled with urban decay. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-cop, is a “Blade Runner,” assigned to assassinate replicants–androids that look like real human beings. When four replicants commit a bloody mutiny on an Off-World colony, Deckard is called out of retirement to track them down. As he eliminates them one by one, he soon comes across another replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), who believes herself to be human. As Deckard closes in on the leader of the replicant group (Rutger Hauer), his misgivings toward artificial intelligence makes him question his own identity in this future world, including what’s human and what’s not.
To follow up Alien, Ridley was always going to have to tackle something big. Something bold. Surprisingly, that project was supposed to be Dune. After Jodorowsky’s failed attempt, the project was held in a state of limbo until Ridley became attached. He went through three drafts on the script before leaving the project, both due to a lack of confidence and the death of his brother. The project he then settled into was the long-gestating adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which even then was considered a classic of science fiction. It was here that he, and indeed, everyone else involved, accomplished something special.
The script to Blade Runner was an ordeal to craft. Hampton Fancher had originated the project, and undeniably, one can say the film is his baby in the same way that Alien is Dan O’Bannon’s. Even in its earliest drafts, taking the form of a claustrophobic, low-budget detective thriller, the main elements of the typical film noir are present: cynical plain-clothes cop, seductive femme fatale, overbearing urban decay. But the subsequent drafts, and ultimately the final shooting script, bring to the fray the first recognizable hallmarks of cyberpunk, and a more cinematic illustration of Dick’s themes regarding dehumanization and the importance of empathy.
The Tyrell Corporation’s gigantic pyramids, stretching over the cluttered, polluted city streets below, are a testament to the absolute power they hold over the world’s citizens. Tyrell builds their own slaves, genetically-engineered replicants, thereby literally controlling the process of creating life. This god-like command over a facet of reality, used for such blatantly capitalistic ends, is the signature of the prototypical cyberpunk company, the evil business that knows and sees all.
Translating this disturbing vision of our future from the page was a selection of the greatest filmic minds in production and visual effects. Douglas Trumbull’s miniature work is still breathtaking, and even stands the test of time against CGI. The opening shot of the ‘Hades’ landscape is just one incredible example among many of just how convincing Blade Runner still looks. Everything feels big and heavy, the exact words you want to describe a piece of plastic and wood only a few feet tall on set. The production design under Laurence Paull and David Snyder is just as beautiful, capturing perfectly the detailed artwork of Syd Mead and really pushing the idea that this is not a backlot set, but a full world, retrofitted and built over several times as the waste of decades piled over top of it. Ridley Scott has a reputation for getting the maximum amount of detail possible out of a single shot, but he has people like Paull, Snyder, and Trumbull to thank for that.
I would be remiss not to mention the equally-vital contribution made by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who was already revered in the industry as a cinematic savant, a true artist with light and photography. One just needs to look at Deckard’s apartment at night, awash with the xenon spotlights of a passing ad blimp, or the surreal photography of Tyrell’s office, to truly get a sense of the mastery Cronenweth brought to the project.
But it’s not just the sights, it’s the sounds. I recently was able to catch a viewing of Blade Runner on a big screen in Cleveland, and what struck me the most was how incredible the mix still is. City scenes are a cacophony of chaos, with multiple overlapping street signs, car engines, wall advertisements, and the choking masses of humanity assaulting your ears in the best way possible. All that was missing was an ozone and sewer smell, and I would have been totally convinced I was actually there. And then you add Vangelis’ unique and penetrating score, and you have a sonic experience that I don’t think will ever be satisfactorily matched.
As much as the visual and aural aspect of Blade Runner is praised, one has to acknowledge what many critics and viewers have seen as shortcomings, mainly the characters themselves. While Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty and Sean Young’s Rachael are praised, Ford’s performance is usually singled out. He manages to inject his rugged charm as best as he can into the role, but one could get the sense that he is emotionally closed-off, that he is but an observer to a string of terrific luck in his mission to ‘retire’ the replicants. This is a legitimate argument, but I find myself coming to his defense. Deckard was never meant to be the dashing rogue like Han Solo or Indiana Jones, and any creepy overtones to his relationship with Rachael are there for a reason. I’m afraid I can’t say too much if you haven’t seen the film, but I will just say that Deckard isn’t all
that he seems either…
And this usually leads to detractors of Ridley Scott himself, and the direction he took the film with regards to the nature of the replicants and Deckard himself. Without giving away too much, I will say that Ridley’s treatment and view of the replicants is diametrically opposed to Dick’s. While Dick portrays the androids of his novel as being undeniably less-than-human creatures whose own survival instinct trumps all other concerns, to the point that there is no empathy or care shown for any other beings, Ridley Scott quipped to Dick’s face that they were “supermen who couldn’t fly.” The replicants are stronger, faster, and most importantly in Batty’s case, smarter than even the humans who designed them. It isn’t their fault that they are murderous once sentient; after all, they only had four years to live and grow mentally. What 4-year-old wouldn’t end up using an adult body and genius knowledge-base to commit acts we would find as heinous? This allows the film to engender sympathy for the replicants as well as the human players, and it opens the door for the surprising climax, and Rutger Hauer’s finest moment as an actor: the famous “tears in rain” soliloquy.
When it comes to alternative versions of films, Blade Runner probably takes the award in sheer numbers. No less than 6 versions were theatrically released, five of which are readily available on video disc. The American and International theatrical versions are almost identical, save for a few more seconds of extreme violence in the International
cut. Both contain a heavily-reviled voice-over narration by Ford and a tacked-on “happy
ending,” depicting a lush, forested region outside of Los Angeles that flies in the face of the entire setting of the film. The narration, while adding to the noir-ish tone of the story, has little real value, merely stating in words what is shown onscreen, done in a lazy drone by Ford. Some, including filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, have defended this version, but I wouldn’t recommend it as the first viewing.
I would give that honor to either the Director’s Cut or the Final Cut, both similar in their own right in removing the narration and the happy ending. The Final Cut is a more polished and popping transfer, however, and has a few more little editorial changes that are for the better. The Final Cut, I would say, is the way to go. The fifth version is a workprint of the film, and while a fascinating watch, it is incomplete, missing the final third of Vangelis’ score and a sense of good pacing. View this version only as an interesting “what-if.”
I honestly could go on and on about Blade Runner; hell, I actually plan to delve deeper into the film with multiple posts closer to the release of Blade Runner 2049. It is the film that first turned me on to the filmmaking process, it expanded my idea of sci-fi past Star Wars and Star Trek, and really was the first piece of art that made me question existence, both outside and my own. Consciously, one could say I came into this world watching Roy Batty yearn to achieve a more human life, and for that I am forever grateful to everyone involved in this remarkable picture. Does it have flaws? Sure, I could find a few, some could find more, but that’s the point of your favorite thing: it isn’t perfect, but you love it because of that. It’s like marriage, and so far, I’m happily married to Blade Runner.