With the anticipated sequel in cinemas, Oscar revisits Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic in its Final Cut glory.
Who made it?: Ridley Scott (Director), Hampton Fancher, David Webb Peoples (Writers), Michael Deeley (Producer), The Ladd Company/The Shaw Brothers/Warner Bros.
Who’s in it?: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson.
Tagline: “Man Has Made His Match… Now It’s His Problem.”
IMDb rating: 8.2/10 (Top #250: 141).
What is Sir Ridley Scott’s masterpiece? Is Alien the winner without a shadow of doubt? Or possibly the crowd-pleasing Gladiator? Perhaps one of the most agreed-upon candidates is the sci-fi noir classic Blade Runner. Speaking personally, I came into the fold quite recently. Before seeing it, all I knew was that it had incredible visuals, atmosphere and a solid cast. What I didn’t realise until recently was this film’s ability to grow on me to such a point where I had no hesitations in calling it a masterpiece and a three-way contender with the other two Ridley classics.
Los Angeles, November 2019. Ex-police officer Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is detained by officer Gaff (Edward James Olmos) and brought to his former supervisor, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh). Deckard, whose job as a “blade runner” was to track down bioengineered beings known as replicants to kill or “retire”, is informed that four of them have come to Earth illegally. As Tyrell Corporation Nexus-6 models, they only have a four-year lifespan and may have come to Earth to try and extend their lives.
Deckard watches a video of a blade runner named Holden (Morgan Paull) being shot by the test subject, Leon (Brion James), after he asks about Leon’s mother, thus revealing himself as a replicant. Bryant wants Deckard to retire Leon and the other three replicants: Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and Pris (Daryl Hannah). Deckard meets with Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and is introduced to his assistant, Rachael (Sean Young), an experimental Nexus-6 model who believes herself to be human. Rachael has been given false memories to provide an “emotional cushion”, and she is devastated to find out later on that her memories were implanted from Tyrell’s niece. Roy and Leon investigate a replicant eye-manufacturing laboratory and learn of J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), a gifted genetic designer who works closely with Tyrell. Pris locates him and manipulates J.F. in order to gain his trust and get closer to Tyrell. Deckard’s search for the replicants is pitted against their own search for their creator.
The acting is excellent and tailors itself well to the type of film that this is. Ford disappears into the slick, laidback detective role, very much a Humphrey Bogart figure like Sam Spade, managing to put a lot of personality and nuance into the role. Young as Rachael has a fragility and mystery about her, seeming at times more human than Deckard. While both actors work well in their respective roles, I don’t find myself invested in the relationship between Deckard and Rachael, as it starts out very rough and uncouth, and there isn’t any real chemistry between Ford and Young. Hauer has an incredible presence as Batty, being poetic and charismatic yet believable as a highly-developed synthetic being, making him a great foil. Olmos is dependable as the exotic Gaff. Turkel has an air of businesslike slyness and genius to him as Tyrell. Hannah convincingly dances back and forth between the facade of naive young girl to determined and dangerous replicant. James fits into the role of the slow and unstable Leon. Sanderson does well as as J. F., having the personality and energy of a younger man within an older body. Cassidy has great sensuality and sheer physical prowess as Zhora, putting up a great fight against Ford. Walsh succeeds in making Bryant a sleazy and unpleasant jerkass, and James Hong as genetics engineer Hannibal Chew does a nice job in a limited role.
As soon as you behold the futuristic vision of Los Angeles, you are instantly drawn into its contrast of fiery light and darkness, tall spires and flying cars. The attention to detail is sublime; each setting has a unique character to it. Every main city location is filled with people, giving the city a lived-in quality. The rampant poverty, cramped marketplaces and torrential rain drive home the unpleasant characteristics of the urban sprawl. The balance of cleverly-constructed set work and real-life locations doubling for film environs is admirable. Naturally, all of it was achieved optically through miniatures and it takes your breath away. As photographic effects supervisors, Richard Yuricich, David Dryer and Douglas Trumbull lend their incredible talents to making the miniatures and optical effects look as seamless as possible. With 35mm film that captures the detail of the combined effects, it’s an example of the old ways still being the best ways. The most impressive of which is the Tyrell pyramid, conveying the size and presence of the building masterfully. The matte paintings blend organically into the real sets and really give the impression of a sprawling metropolis. Anything that would require digital technology, such as a car lifting off, is filmed first in-camera and optically blended into the vast setting.
The cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth is some of the most beautiful in any movie, from the stunning exterior shots with their vivid contrast of light, dark and striking colour timing, to the composition of elements in the foreground and the background. The way the smoke and steam rises up in a simple scene of characters going about their business is all part of the style, and the style feeds into the greater subtext of the film. The angles from the ground or the darkened sky, as well as the futuristic art deco architecture, fuel the film noir aesthetic. The film contains visual homages to to Metropolis, Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, The Maltese Falcon, and Shanghai Express among others, effectively channelling the same visual language of classic cinema.
The score by Vangelis is one of a kind, mixing elegant electronic synth with ethereal singing, blending in flawlessly with the sound design, and when combined with the stunning visuals, it becomes almost overwhelming. His themes range from soft and melodic to fast-paced and exciting, and just plain otherworldly. It is a masterpiece in futuristic sci-fi film scores.
The dialogue has an old fashioned 1930s or 40s quality to it, which is appropriate for the poverty, segregation, war, and struggles that marked those decades. Despite the revisions provided by David Peoples to the original script by Hampton Fancher, it still feels like one cohesive piece, with most of the weaker scenes and dialogue excised from the 2007 Final Cut. Notably absent from this definitive edition is the Deckard narration that fills in all the expositional gaps, which ultimately took away from Deckard’s detective work and merely pointed out the obvious. We do open with a text crawl explaining the conflict between humans and replicants, but it is necessary to provide backstory and context for the rest of the film. Blade Runner walks a fine line between being an enclosed and intimate piece and yet something sweeping and epic. Still, it is a hard film to get into if you don’t really know what to expect.
The themes of pollution and overpopulation, as well as the death of animal life on Earth as seen in Philip K. Dick’s source novel, are woven throughout the film. The motif of animals is evident and tied very strongly to each of the characters. The slow and durable Leon is likened to a tortoise; the wild and charismatic Roy is a wolf and literally howls as he hunts Deckard in the finale; the lithe yet strong Zhora has an affinity for snakes; the survivor Pris is a raccoon (signified by the eye makeup); and the quiet and unassuming Sebastian is more mouse than man. The owl is shared by Tyrell as a sharp-eyed, cold and calculating character, and also by Rachael for her beauty and intelligence, being Tyrell’s kin to a certain extent. Each of these animal symbols are present or referred to in at least one scene. Lastly, as represented by the dream sequences and indicative of his unique status, there is Deckard’s correlation with a unicorn. Animals are more valued than humans or replicants in this future, but these characters ultimately have worth and aren’t mere commodities or livestock to be put down.
The enormous high rises convey the theme of social structure, or societal superiority based on vertical ascension; the higher-ups possess opulence, wealth and power, and the ground levels convey poverty, desperation and chaos. The massive Tyrrell building is an echo of the Mayan temple with ornate metal patterns lining the walls, distinguishing his presence as the creator and the most powerful individual in the film. The movie’s Los Angeles, with its permanent dark cloud of smog, billboards hundreds of feet high, and its street poverty living side by side with incredible wealth, may or may not come true, and this vision of the future is starting to appear in numerous cities across the globe. The pervasive influence of corporation is presented through the enticing adverts of a better life off-world, ringing very true of today’s commercially-driven society. The sort of darkness and cynicism that lingers over the film is of a melancholic and mournful sort while not falling into total nihilism. The hunter falls in love with the hunted, and in turn becomes hunted himself.
Despite their depiction as antagonists in the story, the replicants’ motivations are surprisingly sympathetic; the desire to achieve a greater sense of humanity and an extended lifespan. Blade Runner displays the replicants as a slave race deliberately designed to fail, right at the point when they finally understand what this means. We get our first taste of the cruelty bestowed upon them from the moment they’re created, with false memories to trick them into thinking they’re human only to find out their pasts as they “remembered” them were a lie. We see through Roy’s eyes just how horrible it is to be a creature who exists only to kill other creatures, or to be a sex slave before dying. At the end of the day, the replicants want all of the same things that we as a species take for granted. In another story, Roy would be the hero. Throughout the film, Batty goes through all of the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Mortality and identity are among the film’s most prominent themes. The “tears in rain” speech is without question one of the most tender, beautiful and elegiac scenes in cinema history, as Roy relinquishes life with a smile on his face, holding onto a living dove before passing on. In saving Deckard and accepting his fate, he understands humanity in his last moments better than anyone – what we see and do will pass into the ether with our inevitable fate.
Deckard questions his humanity and identity, thus wanting power and control over replicants as he asserts force on Rachael to show that “real” humans are the more dominant force of the two. He does indeed become softer and more understanding, however, supporting the theory confirmed by Ridley Scott that he could possibly be a replicant himself. It is such a brilliant contrast between a man who is dying and seeking meaning to his life and the detective who gains a deeper understanding of who he is after years of a non-life in Los Angeles. The ending suggests a never-ending struggle to survive. The ambiguity of Deckard as possibly being a replicant is part of the allure of the film’s mystery. He does exhibit reflective red eyes in one scene, similar to Rachael, and Gaff is constantly disrespecting him.
The question as to whether or not Deckard is a replicant has remained a persistent subject of debate. His alcoholism, grumpy personality, occasional clumsiness, and other basic human vices muddy the possibility somewhat. The dreams he gets of a unicorn running through a forest add credence to the replicant angle, but also raise more questions such as where did this memory come from and why? As a character, Deckard is intelligent enough to realise just how bad things really are, moral enough to be disgusted by the state of the world and having to put down replicants, and yet flawed enough to do horrible things to survive. The central theme of the film, among others, is what makes us human and how the line between human and replicant is becoming increasingly blurred. As we ourselves are more enveloped by technology, the reverse is also true with artificial intelligence and other synthetic lifeforms becoming more identical to their real-life counterparts.
The lasting legacy of Blade Runner extends from creating a whole new science fiction genre to captivating discussion between cinephiles, and is still gaining new fans to this day. Its aesthetic and arthouse directing sensibilities are now highly iconic and the cast and crew pushed themselves above and beyond what was expected of each of them, and the results are crystal clear. From humble beginnings as a cult favourite to a genre-defining classic with a high profile sequel on release, it’s been a long but worthwhile journey for Blade Runner.
Batty’s final monologue is a scene for the ages. And it’s all the more amazing when you consider that Hauer wrote it himself.
- Ridley Scott and Jordan Cronenweth achieved the famous “shining eyes” effect by using a technique invented by Fritz Lang known as the “Schüfftan Process”; light is bounced into the actors’ eyes off a piece of half-mirrored glass mounted at a forty-five degree angle to the camera.
- After Pris first meets Sebastian (William Sanderson), she runs away from him, skidding into his car and smashing the window with her elbow. This was a genuine mistake caused by Hannah slipping on the wet ground. The glass wasn’t breakaway glass and Hannah chipped her elbow in eight places. She still has the scar from the accident, as can be seen in Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner (2007), the feature-length making-of documentary on the film.
- The term replicants is used nowhere in Philip K. Dick’s writing. The creatures in the source novel are called Androids or Andies. The movie abandoned these terms, fearing they would sound comical spoken onscreen. Replicants came from David Webb Peoples’ daughter, Risa, who was studying microbiology and biochemistry. She introduced her father to the theory of replication – the process whereby cells are duplicated for cloning purposes.
- The final scene was shot literally hours before the producers were due to take creative control away from Ridley Scott. The Final Cut is the only edition in which he had total creative control of the edit.