In 1982, fresh from his success with ALIEN, director Ridley Scott released BLADE RUNNER, a dystopian look at the world in 2019 and one of the most important movies of the decade, if not ever. By now, Scott has released at least two more versions, one Director’s Cut and one Final Cut, to correct plenty of errors in the film. The noir-piece of cinema has become a complete cult movie and recently, a sequel to it (Blade Runner 2049) was directed by Dennis Villeneuve, a currently successful director that enjoys following Scott’s penchant for darkness. In short, Blade Runner is a movie classic, in par with any and all contemporary masterpieces. But it is hard to remember that, when originally released, the movie bombed terribly at the box office. Context, as always, is needed.
Scott had previously released The Duelists, an extremely worthy Opera Prima that was well received by the critics, and then followed with the mentioned ALIEN, a huge cinematic success both as a gender-pioneer and at the box office. For BR, Scott enrolled Harrison Ford, also fresh from his success as Indiana Jones; the formula was set and it was almost impossible that the movie would not also be a major accomplishment. Yet, BR sputtered at the cinema, and it would take years before it would be recognized as the masterpiece it is and this only after it had slowly become the cult piece that it is today.
But, honesty must prevail and the many faults of the movie must be pointed out. For starters, the director and producers claimed that the movie was based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Android Dreams of Electric Sheep. This led to a renewed interest on Dick, a brilliant but rather obscure writer of futuristic doom, and very soon people were asking a relevant question: other than the Deckard character and the concept of replicants, the movie and the book had so little in common that it was even impossible to claim which one was better, or even why the film claimed such an origin. Then you had way too many logical faults and editing errors for the film to be coherent. For example: the main replicant Roy Batty is searching for a way to extend his life, as he has a projected lifespan of 4 years. But the movie is set in 2019, and his birth date is given as April 2016, so his death at the end, due to this failsafe factor, is untimely. His first scene is obviously a mirror (as inverted) scene that really takes place at the end, as is his clinching fist seen initially (but which only makes sense at the end, as his imminent death begins to cripple him). Another replicant (Zhora) is shot halfway through the drama, but due to Hollywood contracts, the person running through the glass panes (that is the scene) can be clearly seen as a man with a wig. Johanna Cassidy, playing the role, had begged Scott to let her do the stunt herself, but contracts and unions prevailed. Add to that that she can be clearly seen earlier to be wearing high heel boots but after Zhora crashes to her death the scene shows the stunt man wearing running shoes, and one has to really wonder what happened to the editing and continuity. In a final, devastating blow, by the last scene Roy releases a pigeon from his hands, as he dies (a lovely metaphor of his spirit leaving), but during filming, done under torrential Hollywood rain, the pigeon was released only to stay put under the water. Scott was forced to use another sequence, of a pigeon flying up into a cloudy but clear blue sky, a true blunder to a fabulous end.
During the first showings of the film, the marketing people also found out that almost the entire audience did not understand the film. Scott was a respected author, but he was not big enough (at the time) to be able to force the release as it was: the studio forced him to have Ford coming back and narrating in off-voice what was happening, something that both the director and the actor have said they hated. In short, BR is, paradoxically, a masterpiece and a truly poorly finished product. It is this why Scott has continued to tinker with it through the years, using modern technology to replace and cover all these minor defects (the Final Cut used CGI to have the pigeon fly into a properly rainy and dark sky at the end).
Why is it a masterpiece? To begin with, because of the lighting. Scott was bent on making a truly dark film, not because of the subject but because of the atmosphere. Blade Runner is constantly filmed under shadows and rain, creating an oppressive ambience from start to finish. The shadowy filming did not just predate many modern films done that way (Villeneuve recently filmed DUNE, a movie that detests light in almost all moments): Blade Runner created the genre, allowing directors to create somber pieces that from the beginning speak of gloom (the recent The Batman continues this tradition). Then, you have the music. Composed and performed by Greek musical genius Vangelis, Blade Runner used it to even further create a melancholic view of the proposed dystopia. Pieces like “Blade Runner Blues”, “Rachel’s Song” and “Memories of Green” are awe inspiring but, to keep pace with the issues of the movie, the “original soundtrack” was released 12 years later (1994) and in reality, only partially.
But in the end, Blade Runner has become a cult classic because of the power of its story. The dialogs are elevated to a maximum level. The ending monologue by Roy (as he dies) is etched in the memory of all fans of the film. His reply after a genetic engineer tells him “I designed your eyes” is compactness perfected: “Sure. If only you can see what I’ve seen with your eyes”. Deckard’s off voice has always been controversial and many fans enjoyed its removal in the Director’s Cut, but many lines are memorable: “The report would say routine retirement of a replicant, which didn’t make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back” he laments after killing Zhora. A final example: after he escapes death at the hands of Leon (another replicant) when Rachel shoots the android before he can kill Deckard, they stand in a dusky kitchen (what else?) and drink silently. Both of them are shaken by what has happened, and he tells Rachel: “The shakes? Me too. I get them bad. Part of the business”. Rachel, a beautiful young woman that has only recently come to realize she herself is a replicant, looks at him and states “I’m not in the business. I AM the business”.
Watching Blade Runner in 2022 is a peculiar act. Again, originally set in 2019, the movie is now in the past; oddities abound, some of them sad, as is the fact that Roy, dying in the movie in the year 2019, predates the death of Rutger Hauer, the actor that played him and that coincidentally died in 2019. Despite the faults in editing and the limitation of the special effects of the era (vehicles taking off from the ground can be seen to be attached to wires), the beauty of the cinematography puts it still years ahead of anything done since; Scott was successful in making a film that simply nobody has been able to emulate, much less equal. It has been 40 years since movie fans went to the theatre and were confronted by that blue eye staring at the darkness of Los Angeles (the initial scene) but for those that saw it originally, Blade Runner remains as memorable as ever. It is suiting that for those that count BR as one of its favorite films of all time, we can always talk to younger audiences and say:
“I’ve seen things you people would not believe…”