There’s a story in Holywood that when Stevie Nicks went to go see Star Wars in 1977, she was surprised when she saw Harrison Ford appear on screen as Han Solo. For you see, Nicks said that Ford used to sell her weed. As a struggling actor, Ford was known to work as a carpenter to make ends meet. It’s come out that he also sold weed.
By 1982 when Blade Runner hit theaters on this day, June 25, Ford had appeared in three blockbusters (the first Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark) and had been in five movies nominated for Best Picture Oscars. Both Star Wars and Raiders along with smaller roles in American Graffiti, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now made Ford a rising star finally as he neared his 40s.
So, Blade Runner probably left audiences baffled. It starred Indiana Jones/Han Solo. It was directed by Ridley Scott of Alien. It had the musical score by Vangelis. People were expecting action and adventure. What they got is a sci-fi/film noir movie with existentialism themes in which Ford plays a Raymond Chandleresque law officer named Rick Deckard, who is a blade runner. This is a term for officers whose goal is to “retire” rogue androids manufactured as Nexus Replicants to look as real as humans. And by retire, that means Deckard has to kill them.
Set in Los Angeles in 2019, four Off-World Replicants have escaped to Earth. One of them, Leon Kowalski (Brion James) shoots another blade runner during a set of questioning called a Voight-Kampff. Deckard is supposed to be retired by he’s called out by his former supervisor, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh), to work with a current Officer Gaff (Edwards James Olmos). Bryant tells Deckard about Leon and the other androids, Pris (Daryl Hannah), a pleaure android, Zhora Salome (Joanna Cassidy) and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), their leader.
Even though the androids have been given a four-year life span, Bryant weants them “retired” because he doesn’t want anyone knowing. The Replicants are used by the humans but Bryant and others are afraid it getting out they’ve become self-aware and are questioning their existence. They’ve been made so human that they’ve developed human emotions and don’t see themselves as machines. And therefore, the humans who control them are their enemies.
On Earth, Roy is slowly dying as the oldest unable to come to grips with his own end. He’s on a quest to find his maker, a billionaire named Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) who apparently lives in a penthouse apartment in his company building. It appears Tyrell doesn’t leave the building as a type of Howard Hughes persona. Pris, who has developed feelings for Roy, tricks her way into the apartment of J.F. Sebastian (Williams Sanderson), a shy reclusive designer of the androids, so they can get closer to Tyrell. Incidentally, Sebastian, like the Replicants, suffers from a disease that makes his glands age, meaning he looks over than he is. Sanderson, famous for his role as Larry with his brother, Daryl, and other brother, Daryl on Newhart, is supposed to be playing a 25-year-old but he too was closer to 40.
At the same time, Deckard is beginning a relationship with Rachael (Sean Young), a Replicant that is Tyrell’s assistant. Yet, Rachael is an advanced Replicant and doesn’t know she’s one because Tryell tells Deckard they’ve implanted false memories in her to make her think she’s real. Later in the movie when she saves Deckard from Leon by shooting him, she suffers the trauma of taking another’s life, even if it is a Replicant and even if it was in self-defense.
But there’s also a question of whether Deckard himself is real of an android? Even though he’s seen drinking alcohol a lot, Deckard is only seen eating food once. There’s also his willingness to enter back into a job he’s supposed to be retired from. Why did he retire in the traditional sense? We never know.
The biggest debate since Blade Runner came out is if Deckard is a Replicant himself since he is working in a service position as a killer. Would it be easier to program him to kill a Replicant than it would be to ask a human to do it? As Deckard is asked by Rachael, has he ever “retired” a human by mistake? How would someone make that decision or be able to carry on with themselves?
I guess there are subtle ways to tell Deckard is a Replicant. Gaff seems not to care for him even though they barely know each other. It could be that Gaff doesn’t like having to work with a Replicant. After all the Replicants are dead, Gaff tells Deckard he’s done a “man’s job.” Does it mean he’s just complimenting Deckard on a job well done? Or is there more? Later, Gaff says to Deckard in reference to Rachael, “I guess this means she won’t live. But then again, who does?” Could this be a way of telling us, humans die as do all living organism? Or is it a subtle hint that Gaff is letting Deckard and Rachael leave quietly knowing that one day they will die?
This might also be why Roy saves Deckard from falling to his death, even though he’s responsible for the deaths of Pris and Zhora. Roy has realized that Deckard like him was just following orders. Or maybe it’s because Roy realizes that humans like Replicants “live in fear” as they are both slaves to a superior. Or maybe, Roy was trying to show Deckard, who’s really a human, that Replicants can be more merciful and caring than humans.
Like I said, the focus on the being and the self and why and how we exist is at the root of Blade Runner. This isn’t a shoot-em-up space cowboy movie. It’s science fiction and true science fiction looks at themes about life and existence. Roy wants what many humans want – to live as long as possible. Unfortunately, he’s realized after meeting with Tyrell, his maker (i.e. God), that from the day he was incubated, or born, he was set in course to die one day. Jerry Seinfeld said we only celebrate our birthdays because we celebrate one more year of not dying.
The movie works best on our own beliefs that Deckard is a human or is a Replicant. Either way, when he tells Gaff he’s “finished” after Roy’s death. He’s been taught the value of life by a robot. Surely, you’ve noticed the symbolism of the white dove Roy is holding that is released in his death, as the sun tries to shines over a dark clouds. Is Roy’s soul going to an afterlife? Or is this a sign of forgiveness to Deckard and the humans who treated them like slaves?
When Blade Runner was released, it wasn’t a a hit, grossing just over $41 million against a $30 million budget. What’s crazy is the audiences weren’t far removed from the sci-fi movies of the 1970s that posed these similar questions. But maybe it’s because Star Wars had them expecting something different. Ironically, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan released three weeks earlier had similar themes on life and death. It could also have something to do with how Star Trek was rated PG and Blade Runner was R, so the former was able to get a wider audience and more than twice what Blade Runner made at the box office.
In the end, Blade Runner‘s influence became the bigger success. The movie’s view of a decaying urban landscape still bustling with commerce but looking more of a dystopia had a lasting effect on filmmakers and audiences. It’s probably why Tyrell seems almost to be confined to his building. The rich don’t have a reason to venture out in the world. He lives in a huge wonderful building that like it can have anything you’d ever would need. Sebastian lives in a decaying older apartment building.
The neo-noir visuals can be seen in other sci-fi movies, and anime, such as Akira and Cowboy Bepop. This is no surprise since a lot of the movie is set in a section of L.A. with east Asian business and commerce. This plays on a theory in the 1980s and early 1990s that Japan and other Asian countries would have more control of America. That didn’t happen, but you see a lot of it in sci-fi movies from this era.
Scott with the director of photography Jordan Cronenweth and production designer Lawrence G. Paull made a movie that looked what America was heading toward. Remember, this was the early 1980s. There wasn’t much care for protecting the environment. (There still isn’t. But we’re getting there.) Part of the reason for the Off-World colonies is to inspire people to leave Earth. In the book the movie is based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Replicants are a bonus to get people to move. And machines becoming self-aware and turning on the humans had been referenced in Westworld, the works of Harlan Ellison and of course, the Terminator franchise.
At the same time, Scott and his team remind viewers this is still Earth as there is still a need to live here. Blade Runner has become notorious for his product placement (Coca-Cola, Atari, Pan Am, etc.) where an urban legend was created that all product placements suffered major problems or went out of business entirely not long after the movie. Of course, there was the video game crash of 1983 which was caused in part by the Atari video game to E.T. which is considered one of the worst ever. Then, Coca-Cola had problems with New Coke in 1985 as well as seeing their ownership of Columbia Picutres end with high-budget flops such as Ishtar, Leonard Part 6 and The Slugger’s Wife. Pan Am went out of business in 1991 but TDK which is seen has been going strong since. So, it’s all just a coincidence.
Part of Blade Runner‘s failure at the box office has been attributed to a basic, uninteresting voiceover narration by Ford. Some have speculated that Ford at the time didn’t want to do the voiceover and half-assed it. However, both Scott and Ford didn’t mind the narration as it lent to the film-noir feel. They recorded three versions. But Warner Brothers and the production company, The Ladd Company, chose the third version, which neither Ford nor Scott liked, which is part of the reason Scott removed it in the 1992 “Director’s Cut.”
What Scott also hated was the “uplifting ending” the studio forced him to tack on the end. In this ending, Deckard and Rachael are shown in a vehicle leaving L.A. through a clear-sky and sunny natural landscape. Scott didn’t like this either. He even contacted Stanley Kubrick and inserted unused footage Kubrick had shot for the opening of The Shining. Incidentally, Turkel appears in both movies in crucial roles.
Along with the “Director’s Cut” which removes the narration and uplifting ending, there is a “Final Cut” which is similar to the “Director’s Cut” along with some more violent and graphic scenes as well as the hocky masked cage dancers. I saw this still used in an Entertainment Weekly article in 1994 or 1995. It’s nothing major, just a few seconds of Asian women, half-clothed wearing hockey masks making a few dance gestures while in a cage during the sequence where Deckard goes to a nightclub.
Either way, I would recommend you watch the “Director’s Cut” or the “Final Cut” but any version is watchable. Despite myths, a lot of people love the U.S. theatrical version. And the uplifting ending actually adds to the allure that Deckard is a Replicant as Rachael tells him, “We were made for each other.” It’s a hokey line, yes, but it has some underlying meaning if you think Deckard is an android.
But what I like about Blade Runner is how it leaves its interpretations open to the viewers. You don’t have to fully understand it and it doesn’t tell you everything it’s about. You’re supposed to draw your own conclusions.
What do you think? Please comment.
One thought on “‘Blade Runner’ Turns 40 And Its Influence And Mystique Is Fresh As Ever”
Philip K. Dick said, quite correctly, that science fiction is about ideas. Blade Runner is still one of our best reminders of that. Thank you for a very interesting analysis.
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