Director Ridley Scott has described Blade Runner as “probably his most complete and personal film”, a prized spot that certainly wasn’t easily earned, considering there have been no fewer than seven versions shown, spanning two decades, from the original in 1982 to the perfected Final Cut in 2007.
All the tinkering and reworking was evidently worth it, however, and Blade Runner has often been hailed as one of the finest examples of sci-fi cinema – and in fact, one of the finest films, period – of all time. Right from the majestic opening sequence, as the camera floats dream-like over a glittering, other-worldly night-time cityscape to the haunting, synth-laden strains of Vangelis’ score, it’s obvious that you’re watching something seriously special.
Scott’s dystopian vision of the future (Los Angeles in 2019!), based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, still looks stunning even by today’s CGI-enhanced standards, and the image of the Tyrell Building – an immense structure reminiscent of an Aztec temple – dominating the skyline, looming out of a haze of skyscrapers and airborne vehicles, has become iconic in the sci-fi genre.
It’s fitting that the Tyrell Building is essentially the first thing we see of this unsettling not-so-distant future, given that it holds such a central role in the plot, as the home of the Tyrell Corporation – manufacturers of bioengineered androids known as ‘replicants’ that are virtually indistinguishable from humans. “More human than human” is the corporation’s motto.
These replicants, physically stronger, more agile and equally intelligent to their human counterparts (though with a much shorter lifespan) are primarily used as slave labor to aid the colonisation of new territories in space. The conflict at the heart of the story arises, however, when a group of particularly advanced androids – the latest Tyrell Nexus-6 models, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) – stage a violent uprising and breach the law by returning to Earth.
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a jaded, retired ‘Blade Runner’, is contracted to hunt down these rogue replicants and ‘retire’ them (a veiled term for execution), but the job gets increasingly complicated and dangerous as he becomes romantically involved with Dr. Tyrell’s assistant, a beautiful replicant named Rachael (Sean Young) who has been imprinted with false memories and has no idea of her artificial origins – leading Deckard to question himself, his motives, his work and the very nature of what it means to be human.
As well as being a seminal sci-fi classic, Blade Runner is also a shining example of neo-noir and postmodern styles – Scott’s futuristic L.A is a cyberpunk mish-mash of old and new, as well as different cultures; a place where steamy Hong Kong-like markets are back-lit by giant Coca-Cola signs, where there’s urban decay and seedy dive bars aplenty, alongside incredible futuristic technology and excessive opulence.
The noir influences are most keenly felt in the dark and smoky interiors that appear throughout – who can forget the early scene where the replicant Leon (Brion James) is being subjected to the Voight-Kampff test (a series of questions designed to determine whether the subject is human) in a shadowy interrogation room, with an old-fashioned ceiling fan spinning overhead? Or when Deckard is hauled in by his slimy superior, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) for a meeting in a dingy office, complete with Venetian blinds and, of course, the ubiquitous plumes of cigarette smoke.
There are also a number of classic noir archetypes to be found in the film, with Deckard as the taciturn and morally ambiguous ‘hero’ of the piece, a sense of a corrupt and powerful authority system, and several different femme fatale figures – from the deadly “pleasure model” Pris (Daryl Hannah) to the enigmatic, alluring Rachael.
Another defining noir-esque feature of Blade Runner is its beautifully terse and simplistic, yet often poetic, dialogue, penned by screenwriter David Peoples. There are far too many priceless lines to even begin to list, though arguably the most spectacular scene is the final rooftop confrontation between Deckard and an unhinged Batty, as the replicant contemplates the end of his short life, lamenting the loss of his memories “like tears in the rain” – a real career-defining performance from the brilliant Rutger Hauer.
There’s something incredibly emotionally affecting about Blade Runner, beyond its aesthetic beauty, exceptional cast and fantastic dialogue. It raises so many questions about human nature, empathy, identity and mortality – it makes you doubt whether the humans are, in fact, the good guys. What makes one being alive or ‘real’ and another artificial? What makes us who we are, other than our memories? The uncertainty that surrounds Deckard’s character (is he or isn’t he a replicant?) adds a whole other mind-bending dimension to the film, somehow making the ending more poignant, rather than unsatisfying, as other such ambiguous endings might be.
To this day, Blade Runner continues to influence and inspire, casting a long shadow over the sci-fi genre that can be felt in movies as diverse as The Fifth Element and I, Robot, and leaving behind a legacy that will no doubt stretch well beyond 2019.