What makes us human?
What is the central element at the core of our beings that defines who and what we are?
Our desires? Our dreams? Our memories?
Loosely based on a story by revered science-fiction pioneer Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), 1982’s Blade Runner is a film that takes an entire set of ideas and synthesizes them, creating a single unified whole that becomes a quintessential masterwork of the genre.
There are countless stories about androids, robots, and artificial intelligence. Blade Runner is simply the one that does it perfectly.
Part science-fiction, part detective noir, part creature/creator myth, Blade Runner is the story of Rick Deckard, a retired cop in a futurized version of 2019 Los Angeles who is tasked with taking up his old job, a job he was very, very good at – hunting and killing synthetic humanoid individuals known as replicants. Because of unavoidable flaws in their manufacturing, replicants are inherently unstable after a given period of time and become prone to violence, leading to their illegalization on Earth and a built-in four-year lifespan. But a group of them have escaped an off-world colony and are now hiding in L.A.
Ridley Scott, coming directly off the brilliant and successful Alien, put his visual craftsmanship to unprecedented work, creating a film world that has not only influenced countless pieces of the genre since, but has forever altered the landscape of both film and science-fiction.
One cannot say that Blade Runner doesn’t age, because it has. By today’s standards, the visual effects and used-future aesthetics of Scott’s sci-fi opus appear somewhat dated. But what most people don’t realize is that much of the sci-fi iconography we are familiar with today stems directly from Blade Runner itself, and many of the subsequent films in the genre that we have come to love owe Blade Runner a great debt.
The legacy and influence of Blade Runner is a given. Many would make the argument that Blade Runner’s greatness stops there – at its influence upon its own genre. They would say that the film’s greatest strength is the fact that it influenced an entire generation of writers and filmmakers and is still influencing them today. While I would agree with these sentiments, I would whole-heartedly disagree that this is the extent of Blade Runner’s legacy.
While Blade Runner boasts groundbreaking visuals, unprecedented design, and a masterfully stirring synthscore by Vangelis, all of these would be empty victories if they did not have a story worthy of indwelling them. What makes Blade Runner a phenomenon and a masterpiece is not its influence; it is, as always, the story.
It is unfortunate that the story was mired by several conflicting decisions between the director and the studio at the time of its release. Ridley Scott’s original vision was tampered with and did not originally make it to theater screens. Studio heads at the time deemed the movie too dark and complex for audiences, and so a theatrical cut with a heavy-handed voiceover and the very heart of the movie removed was released in 1982. However, Scott fought for his original vision even after the film was released, and was eventually permitted to release his cut of the film in the form of what we have today – the director’s cut, or more accurately, the Final Cut.
It is this definitive edition of the film that went on to become a cult classic and one of the most beloved and revered films of all time. And with good reason.
On the surface, Blade Runner is a neo-noir detective story, complete with a selfish, hard-boiled cop who callously hunts down his targets amidst the steam-swirled streets of a dank, dark future, a mysterious and deadly killer on the loose, and a beautiful cigarette-smoking dame who desperately needs his help. But beneath that skin is something far deeper – a contemplative meditation on what exactly makes us human, and what makes human beings worthwhile. In a world where man can literally play god (a role filled by the reclusive CEO of the Tyrell Corporation – creator of the replicants), many questions are raised. What is humanity’s responsibility to the new life that we create? What are the rights of our creations? And if we, the gods, bestow the gift of consciousness upon this new life - complete with emotions, desires, even memories – what, if anything, is the difference between them and us?
Blade Runner is not a film that will hold your hand. The plot is not going to be spoon-fed to you. It asks you to take part, to engage, to think, and to follow Deckard into the twisting shadows of the city and his own quest that will lead both character and audience to an unknown revelation. This is a movie that asks you to pay attention, and rewards you for doing so. But these streets are dangerous and full of secrets. Blink and you’ll miss them.
In the decades since its release, Blade Runner has proven to be a very divisive film. Few attempt to argue against its influence, but many do not readily acknowledge its merit otherwise. I believe there are a couple reasons for this. First, because there have been so many different versions over the years, many people don’t know which one to watch. Watch the Final Cut. The end, full stop. That is the definitive version of Ridley Scott’s original vision, and the best edition of the film. Second, because of current mindsets in entertainment, audiences expect everything to be spelled out for them. I holler at the sky and shake my fist at this. To be fair, there is a fine line between spoon-feeding your audience a plot and making something that is so obscure and inscrutable that it’s nigh unwatchable. I believe Blade Runner is the perfect example of how to do it right. Watch the movie, watch carefully until the final credits roll, then stop and think about what you just saw. That’s all I’ll say.
Even if you watch the correct version and understand its complexities, you may still not like Blade Runner. And that’s okay. It's not a movie for everyone. But whether you love it or hate it, the greatness of Blade Runner simply cannot be denied. Its legacy and influence is alive and well today, and we still haven’t seen another story that so eloquently synthesizes and epitomizes its subject matter and its subgenre. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, and it is locked into my personal top five of all time.
I wrote this review/analysis for a reason. This coming weekend, a sequel to Blade Runner thirty-five years in the making finally releases. Blade Runner: 2049. If early reports are any indication, the sequel not only lives up to the original, but may very well surpass it. I am beside myself with anticipation. But a word of caution: do not see the new film without watching the original. Pretty please.
In closing, the only other film that I think comes close to rivaling Blade Runner is 2015’s Ex Machina, written and directed by the brilliant Alex Garland. I’m planning on writing a retro-review of that at some point.
Until next time, thanks for reading.