Despite having spawned an entire ecosystem of imitators, tributes, and descendants, director Ridley Scott’s 1981 sci-fi opus Blade Runner remains a stunningly unique viewing experience. Uncanny and transporting, the film creates its own wholly self-contained wavelength of both storytelling and styling, somehow forbiddingly weird even as it perfectly scratches an existential itch that keeps some viewers—this writer included—transfixed each and every time.
Director: Ridley Scott
Producers: Charles de Lauzirika, Michael Deeley
Writers: Hampton Fancher, David Webb Peoples, Philip K. Dick (novel)
Cinematographer: Jordan Cronenweth
Editors: Marasha Nakashuma, Terry Rawlings
Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah
Country: USA/Hong Kong/UK
US Theatrical Release: June 25, 1982
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
The film’s story is a peculiar and potent fusion of neo-noir, dystopic sci-fi, and surreal, existential art cinema. Blade Runner follows Harrison Ford’s protagonist Rick Deckard through the labyrinthine, crowded streets of a bleak future Los Angeles, nearly unrecognizable as a sprawling, gloomy, and severely overpopulated slum. The year is 2019, and humanity has recently perfected robotics through the creation of androids virtually indistinguishable from humans, known as replicants. Unfortunately, society’s plan to use replicants as slave labor on space stations has hit a snag, with some of them violently revolting and returning to Earth, where they walk among us largely undetected.
Deckard is a retired Blade Runner, a term for a special breed of detective tasked specifically with hunting down and killing rogue replicants. He’s called back into action when his former boss Bryant alerts him to the presence of four exceptionally murderous replicants who have returned to Earth in search of a way to extend their built-in lifespan of a mere four years, the end of which is fast approaching for each of them.
But as Deckard’s search unfolds, so do a number of discomfiting, lingering enigmas, which seem at first to form the film’s thematic backdrop but which increasingly suffuse its every moment as the plot careens towards its mythical, ambiguous conclusion. At the crux of these questions lies Rachael, a beautiful woman that Deckard meets at the headquarters of replicant manufacturers the Tyrell Corporation, and whom he quickly realizes is a replicant who thinks she’s a human.
The film’s exploration of the issues arising from this existential quandary is anything but didactic. Like the memories implanted into replicants’ minds to fool them into think they’re human, the psychological and philosophical mystery feels organically woven into the film’s style. Blade Runner somehow manages to be dreamlike but never distant, born of a sort of visceral and tactile surreality that surfaces everywhere from the film’s use of color and shadow to its set and costume design—not to mention its subtly perfect (and remarkably contemporary-looking) special effects.
Although he’s one of action and sci-fi cinema’s foremost icons, Harrison Ford has never been its finest actor, but his paranoid Deckard, equal parts hard-boiled and quizzical, is note perfect. Sean Young, meanwhile, turns in a more mannered performance, but she succeeds in giving Rachael the air of wounded innocence that makes her character work. Daryl Hannah and Rutger Hauer steal the show as runaway replicants Pris and Roy Batty. In particular, Hauer’s masterfully bizarre performance, culminating with Roy’s tragic speech to Deckard during the film’s climax, heightens and cements film’s stark strangeness.
Blade Runner is based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, although it both expands on that novel’s world vastly, and smooths some of its stranger edges. Although he is a titanic, iconoclastic figure in 20th century literary science fiction, Dick’s seemingly vast cinematic influence is merely superficial. Few attempts at rendering his work visually manage to capture the sheer intensity and novelty of the worlds his fiction creates, and Blade Runner remains the only film to so deftly render the disorientingly sui generis quality of his best writing, as most who tried in Blade Runner’s wake have fallen flat—witness drab, lazy fare like 2011’s The Adjustment Bureau. Perhaps only Richard Linklater’s truly psychedelic A Scanner Darkly has come nearly as close to genuinely honoring its source material, and — perhaps tellingly, given Blade Runner’s long shadow—it does so by carefully eliding many of the visual and formal conventions established by Scott’s film. (Steven Spielberg’s surprisingly great Minority Report deserves a mention here as well, but it’s not a patch on either Blade Runner or A Scanner Darkly, because it uses the former’s visual vocabulary as a crutch)
Of course, it’s hard to talk about Blade Runner without addressing the running controversy over the film’s many versions. In its initial theatrical release, Scott had been forced to tack on an unwieldy voiceover and a happy ending, and “original” cuts of the film became legendary and much-bootlegged. Scott’s 1992 “director’s cut” sought to put to rest much of the debate, and 2007’s “final cut”—the only version over which Scott has had total creative control—offers only a handful of tweaks over the 1992 version. The defining changes include the addition of a few extra seconds of violence here and there, to bring it in line with the 1982 “International cut,” plus an extended dream sequence not included in its entirety in any other version. But although these edits seem small, they only improve the film: there’s no question, at least from where I sit, that this is the best and most complete version available. So if you’ve managed to avoid Blade Runner until now, this is the way to go; just sit back and give yourself over to the definitive cut of what may be the finest sci-fi film of all time.