PLEASE NOTE: For this article, I have chosen the later amended versions of Blade Runner rather than the original. An argument could be made that this article shouldn’t be in the “Best of the 80s” section, seeing as the first revised edition, the director’s cut, was released in 1991. My counter argument to that is it was filmed in the 80s and its first theatrical release was in the 80s, thus justifying its place in this section.
For a film widely regarded as a milestone in Sci Fi cinema history, its start to life was rather ominous. The atmosphere on set was alleged to have been nigh on unbearable due to friction between director Ridley Scott and lead actor Harrison Ford. Add to that the less than favourable reviews of early screenings, it’s a wonder that Blade Runner ever made it to VHS/DVD at all. Thankfully, through Ridley Scott’s constant tinkering, it became the juggernaut of the Sci Fi genre that’s still talked about today.
Visually, Blade Runner is astounding. From the very first scenes, the tone is immediately set. A sprawling dystopian metropolis reflected on the iris is an incredible shot that stays with you. A city of eternal night saturated with rain-drenched neon is almost a character in itself. Positively oozing with cyberpunk tones, it really is a visual treat. An ethereal score by Vangelis is a perfect accompaniment to the visual style.
At its heart, Blade Runner is futuristic film noir. Set in Los Angeles, 2019, the story follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former detective dragged out of retirement for one last job; to find four fugitives and bring them to justice. Such a simple premise belies staggering complexity. The fugitives in question are Replicants, bioengineered beings created for slave labour off-world. Inexplicably outlawed on Earth, it falls to Deckard, as a “Blade Runner”, to dispose of them. Their only crime is a desire to exceed their four-year life span.
The “Voight-Kampff” empathy test is the only way to discern between humans and replicants. During the test, the suspected replicant is subjected to a series of questions designed to evoke an emotional response, a lack of which proves them to indeed be a replicant. The four replicants that Deckard is charged with finding, however, are from the latest Nexus 6 range. The Nexus 6 have implanted memories, which provides them with an emotional cushion, effectively rendering the Voight-Kampff test almost irrelevant. Due to these memories, it’s entirely possible for a Nexus 6 to not be aware of being a replicant.
So Deckard is tasked with finding and killing these Nexus 6 fugitives, but the way in which he nonchalantly carries out such an inhumane task is, frankly, unsettling. Here is a man who casually dispatches what, or who, he is told to without really questioning why. Compare him to the leader of the Nexus 6, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), and the line between protagonist and antagonist is blurred. How can we, the audience, cheer for such an emotionless character? Especially when Batty, ostensibly the antagonist, is so full of emotion and craves the very life that Deckard so casually dismisses?
The only hint of humanity in Deckard is a clumsy romance between himself and unknowing replicant Rachael (Sean Young). Initially a subject of Deckard’s extensive empathy test, Rachael garners sympathy because of Deckard’s insensitive outing of her as a replicant. Realising her pain, Rick attempts to soften the impact of his revelation, but inadvertently develops feelings for her. It’s an uneasy coupling, largely due to Rachael’s emotional inexperience and Deckard’s obvious inner turmoil. After all, Rick is supposed to dispose of replicants, not fall in love with them. It’s a dilemma that clearly plays on his mind. It’s during this awkward romance that we become privy to Deckard’s unicorn dreams. Dreams that we dismiss at the time, but eventually realise the implications behind them, forever changing our perspective of him in the process.
Roy Batty is a wonderfully complicated character, and it took a truly phenomenal performance from Rutger Hauer to do him justice. Frequently unnerving, yet often sympathetic, Batty is essentially the spine of the story. The meeting between Roy and the genius that created him, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) is a definite highlight. A deeply philosophical back and forth between the two is ripe with religious undertones. What would you do were you to meet your maker? Would you thank them for the life they gave you? Would you blame them for your shortcomings? Roy Batty visibly wrestles with these questions and seeing Rutger Hauer act out such complexity is genuinely mesmerising.
The inevitable confrontation between Deckard and Batty is worthy of the slow build up. Throughout the film, Deckard “retires” the replicants, one by one. Each one more difficult than the last, until only Batty remains. Rather than the clichéd showdown between protagonist and antagonist, we see an intense cat and mouse chase through a desolate Bradbury building. Deckard abandons his pursuit in favour of survival, realising that disposing of Batty is a task he is neither capable of, nor willing to complete. The closing moments of this chase, atop the rain-slick rooftop, leads to one of the best monologues in film history, and is a hugely satisfying conclusion.
However, Blade Runner doesn’t finish there. Throughout the film, Gaff (Edward James Olmos), the man responsible for bringing Rick out of retirement, shows an unusual calling card; he crafts origami animals during certain scenes. Initially dismissed by the audience, it’s only during the closing moments that the significance becomes clear. An origami unicorn is the last thing we see, laid in the path of a fleeing Deckard and Rachael, deftly implying that Gaff is aware of Rick’s unusual unicorn dreams, intimating that Rick Deckard is in fact a replicant.
Of course, whether or not Deckard is a replicant has been the source of much debate amongst fans. Everybody interprets things differently, but the fact that it’s still discussed to this day is a testament to its profundity.
With so many alterations over the years, Blade Runner has changed considerably. Gone are the elements that initially held it back. The bland narration, the visible prop errors, everything that detracted from the experience has been replaced with simple elements that profoundly change the dynamic of the story. Who would have thought that an origami animal could have such a colossal effect on not just one character, but on the entire film?
After so many revisions from Ridley Scott, Blade Runner has become a lovingly-crafted, finely-tuned Sci Fi machine. An undeniably indelible influence on the future of the genre. A true masterpiece.