Based on Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is considered a true classic of sci-fi cinema, and rightly so. Practically inventing future noir, and originating (more or less) cyberpunk on film, Blade Runner (an initial box office flop) has gone on to become the benchmark by which other science fiction films are measured.
There are several incarnations of the movie currently in circulation. (Early test screenings of Ridley’s met with a muted response which led to various cuts being produced, including the one with Ford’s infamous overdubbed monologues.) For this review I watched the version known as Blade Runner: The Final Cut, which Scott reportedly has complete artistic control over, and which comes with the (rather exhaustive) documentary disc, Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner.
If you’re not familiar with the plot of Blade Runner it goes something like this: The powerful Tyrell Corporation has been creating replicants – androids indistinguishable from humans – to work as menials in off-world colonies. Replicants have an in-built fail-safe – a four-year limited life span which prevents them from becoming ‘too human’ – however a group of replicants has arrived on earth, looking to extend their lifespans, by any means necessary. Deckard (played by a fresh-faced Harrison Ford) is a Blade Runner – a hit man/detective charged with hunting down and ‘retiring’ the rogue replicants.
Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe that this film is 28 years old. There is a bleak kind of freshness to its claustrophobic, corporate logo-dominated cityscapes, and indeed, the visual effects are simply breathtaking. Perfectly realised and enormous in scope, the futuristic dystopian Los Angeles cityscapes have a realism and tangibility that today’s cheap and cheerful CGI –laden films could learn a thing or two from. Reportedly when author Philip K. Dick was offered a test screening of the sequences he was stunned at how accurately Scott had captured his vivid “inner world”.
For all its glossy and stylised futurism however, there is a real, human desperation in Los Angeles 2019, an aching gulf between the dreamy manufactured escapism that surrounds the characters and the harsh realities with which they must contend. For all those breathtaking special effects, it’s the oppressive cityscapes, the unceasing rain, and the melancholy nihilism of the seemingly never-ending night that stay with you after viewing.
So it’s quite easy to see why Blade Runner made movie executives, notorious for their insistence on appealing to the lowest common denominator, nervous. Blade Runner is one of those curiously enigmatic films that leaves the viewer with far more questions than it answers. Who is human and who isn’t? Can Deckard and Rachael escape the Tyrell Corporation? Is Deckard himself a replicant? (The first release had a ‘happy’ ending that was replaced later.)
And in the end you’re left with the feeling that what it means to be human is all too dependent, not on what we are made of, but what we do. Replicant Roy’s monologue as he faces his own expiration, not raging and fuming, but with a quiet, resigned consideration is beautiful: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe: Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time; like tears in rain.”
Blade Runner is, quite simply, amazing, for much more than the mere visual reasons that are commonly celebrated. In this day and age, when Hollywood blockbusters are, almost by definition, exercises in style over substance, Blade Runner shows just what speculative fiction is capable of. Troubling and thought-provoking, not to mention very, very cool, Blade Runner is a demonstration of how good filmmaking can get.