Even if I wasn’t spending a month focusing on Ridley Scott movies, Blade Runner is worth fitting into a fairly nerdy blog that’s been doing a variety of movies for a while now. It’s often considered to be among the greatest sci-fi movies of all-time. It’s certainly a very inspirational one, influencing the visual styles, soundtracks, and speculative side of the genre in movies, games, and TV shows since. Yet despite all its fame, Blade Runner was not a financial success upon its initial release. It only earned $41.6 million with its theatrical release, on a budget of $30 million. Movies generally need to earn back at least double its budget to make a profit, if not more. It’s also got 7 official releases, and that in itself is insane.
Instead of talking about the behind the scenes details at length for this one, which are definitely worth checking out by the way, it’s more interesting to talk about the very different releases of this film, as well as a hotly debated subject the movie brings up. Is Deckard a replicant? In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll explain it when I focus on the movie itself.
Let’s start with the basics. Blade Runner is based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Ridley Scott was approached to direct the film shortly after the script was optioned. He declined at first, but accepted it in the aftermath of his older brother’s death, wanting a fast-paced project to take his mind off of it. On that note, he also dropped out of 1984’s Dune because it was too slow-paced for him at the time. Who knows, a Scott version of Dune could have been very good. I’m sure it would have at least been better than 1984’s Dune movie. Dick was casually involved with the development of the Blade Runner movie as well. He tended to be very skeptical of Hollywood in principle, but very much enjoyed Scott’s visual style, and fully approved of the final script. Sadly, he passed away before Blade Runner released.
The book deviates from the film in several ways. The main one being that the book makes it explicitly clear that Decker is a human, whereas the movie is intentionally ambiguous on that point. This is a change that Dick actually enjoyed. A lot of the story elements that weren’t used in the first movie were later utilized in the 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049.
It’s also worth mentioning that Dick’s friend, K.W. Jeter, wrote three authorized sequels to the original novel, titles “Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human, Blade Runner 3: Replicant Night, and Blade Runner 4: Eye and Talon.
Harrison Ford stars as Rick Deckard, a former police officer. He specialized in working as a “Blade Runner”. Being a Blade Runner meant he was often assigned to track down bioengineered humanoids known as replicants, and “retire” them, a soft word for killing them. While he and Scott didn’t get along during production, they’ve long since patched things up and get along great. He’s great in the role as a grumpy former cop who is still very good at his job, showing a mix of genuine curiosity, regret, and a good amount of fear or anger when it calls for it. It’s a more subtle performance than you’d see from his more charismatic Han Solo or Indiana Jones performances, but for this movie, that’s for the best.
You’ve also got the late Rutger Oelsen Hauer as Roy, the leader of the four replicants Deckard is sent after. His performance is the most entertaining in this movie. He shows a lot of charisma and passion as a replica who is very close to his expiration date, and just wants to live, but through the fear of his end, he also clearly appreciates life. He’s equally menacing and sympathetic. Of the role, Hauer described it as his favourite career movie. Daryl Hannah plays Pris, another of the replicants, who is delightfully crazy. Mary Sean Young plays Rachael, a specialized replicant experiment, who also becomes Deckard’s love interest. Her performance is also fairly subdued, but brings a lot of dramatic weight to the story. Last but not least, William Sanderson plays J.F. Sebastian, a lonely toymaker who is human, but will die young because of a premature aging disorder. As such, he sympathizes with the replicants and their built-in four-year lifespan.
Although there are seven versions of this movie, the Final Cut is the only version I have ever seen, and I don’t plan on watching the others. Of the seven, it’s the only one where Scott retained creative control. Every other officially released version had some form of studio interference, most notably the theatrical cut. The theatrical cut threw in a voiceover that nobody involved with the film wanted, especially Harrison Ford, but was added after test screen audiences found the movie confusing. There are stories that he intentionally put in a terrible voice over performance in hopes that the studio would abandon it, but he denied that in a 2002 interview, saying “I delivered it to the best of my ability, given that I had no input.” Therefore, the theatrical cut is the only version with a voiceover. It also includes a “happy ending” that nobody involved with the film wanted.
There was also the San Diego sneak preview version, which is nearly identical to the theatrical cut, but includes 3 extra scenes that have never appeared in any version since. The international release featured more violence than the theatrical cut, and was later re-released in North America as the “10th-Anniversary Edition”. In 1989, while searching for soundtrack masters for other films, they found a 70mm print of Blade Runner in the Warner Bros. vaults. That print is also known as the workprint cut, which was released for limited screenings in 1990. They called it the Director’s Cut, despite Scott calling it a rough edit that was missing several vital scenes.
In 1992, the actual Director’s Cut released. Although it was Scott approved, and Scott did provide extensive notes and consultation to Warner Bros., film preservationist Michael Arick took the lead on the edit. Among its major changes, they removed the theatrical cut’s voiceover, they inserted a dream sequence, and it removed the studio imposed happy ending. Finally, the Final Cut released in 2007 – the film’s 25th anniversary.
Anyway, Blade Runner is a very good movie. It’s got a rich visual style that both feels futuristic and grungy. It uses the environments, including fancy advertisements, for further visual storytelling quite well. As much as it takes place in the “future of 2019”, it feels much more like a 1930’s film noir in terms of tone, structure and the fact that the main character is acting as a detective for most of the film. It’s a combination that blends together nicely. The themes of the meaning of life are very compelling, especially when told through the perspectives of the replicants whose expiration dates are approaching fast.
This is not what you would call an action movie, but there is still a decent amount of action in it. Deckard’s fight with the combat model replicant is brutal. The chase scene through the crowded streets is slow, but tense. The final confrontation between Deckard and Roy wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie with just a couple of adjustments. Speaking of that confrontation, it’s fun watching Roy go crazy as he’s chasing Deckard around, clearly wanting to toy with his prey, but then he does something very curious at the end of the fight that I won’t spoil. It leads to what is probably the movie’s most compelling moment though.
Warning – there are spoilers in this next video.
The best part of this movie though, is that it clearly trusts its audience to pay attention. This is not the kind of movie you can casually watch. You need to pay attention to visual clues, the subtleties of the performances, and the carefully written dialogue to understand what’s going on. That is, as long as you don’t watch the theatrical cut with the voiceover. It definitely benefits from multiple viewings, and you’ll likely notice something new every time you watch it. It also leaves you with several questions, the main one being is Deckard a replicant.
Even the cast and crew disagree on that particular point. Clearly the original author of the book, Dick, wrote Deckard as a human, and still believed that after seeing the intentionally ambiguous script (even if he liked that change). Ford also agrees that Deckard is a human. Scott on the other hand believes that Deckard is a replica, but prefers the movie to remain ambiguous. Screenwriter Hampton Fancher said that he wrote the character as a human, but wanted the film to suggest that he might be a replicant. Syd Mead, who helped design the movie’s visuals, agrees with Scott that Deckard is a replicant. The movie’s visual effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull, stated that he doesn’t know Deckard’s true nature, and called the issue an enigma. As for myself, I don’t really care that much which one he is, but I enjoy the debate itself.
I haven’t yet seen Blade Runner 2049 (even though I own it), but from what I’ve heard, it doesn’t contribute to this debate one way or another, and that’s probably for the best. This debate is quite possibly the most fascinating aspect of the movie on its own, and the ongoing debate between both its fans and its creators is part of why Blade Runner has enjoyed such a lasting legacy.
This movie is an easy recommendation for fans of science fiction in general. Just keep in mind that if you haven’t seen the movie before, make sure you pay attention when you do. Blade Runner is not a casual watch. That said, as much as most generally don’t like the Theatrical cut as much, the voiceover may help new fans understand what’s going on easier.
Initial critical reactions to the movie were mixed. Most critics agreed that the special effects and set design was very good, but some argued that it got in the way of the storytelling. Others argued that the story’s complexity would stand the test of time. The New Yorker’s magazine review said that it’s worthy of a place in film history for its visuals, yet criticized what it called the film’s “lack of development in human terms”. Ares Magazine on the other hand stated in its review, “Misunderstood by audiences and critics alike, it is by far the best science fiction film of the year.”
Next week, I’ll look at Kingdom of Heaven, which is a textbook example of studio interference severely holding back a brilliant movie. It’s a movie where the director’s cut is clearly superior to the theatrical version, to the point where it underwent a complete critical reevaluation. As for myself, the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven may actually be my favourite Ridley Scott movie. Next month, I’ll be looking at a variety of hilariously bad movies. I haven’t quite decided on the lineup yet, but I won’t be looking at any Ed Wood movies because they’re too well known in that community.
Blade Runner is one of my favourite Sci-Fi films. Its a classic and artistically probably Ridley Scott’s finest film of all. The casting, sets, and effects are all exquisitely crafted and the story is brilliant. The final cut is superb as well, although the first time I saw Blade Runner was the 90’s Directors Cut. I think Blade Runner is a fine example of a film that has evolved via dedication and desire to make it truly as originally intended rather than simply for commercial reasons. I have seen Blade Runner 2045, its ok, but it overcooks the narrative and doesn’t really bring much to the table. Will look forward to your views on Kingdom of Heaven next, I watched that a couple of weekend ago.
There’s almost too much to say about Blade Runner, and how every aspect of the movie works.
Just out of curiosity, do you lean more towards Deckard being a human or a replicant?
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Blade Runner is indeed such a rich film full of depth and subtext. We could probably write pages and paged about this great movie. As for Dekard, personally I’ve always still though he was human.
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