Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Blade Runner (1982)
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Background

Blade Runner (1982), rising director Ridley Scott's follow-up to his hit Alien (1979), is one of the most popular and influential science-fiction films of all time - and it has become an enduring cult classic favorite. But the enthralling film was originally a box-office financial failure, and it received negative reviews from film critics who called it muddled and baffling. It also wasn't encouraging that it faced Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) during its opening release.

It received only two Academy Award nominations without Oscars: Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Visual Effects. The evocative, inventive, stylistic film has improved with age and warrants repeated viewings. The dense, puzzling, detailed plot of the film is backed by a mesmerizing, melancholy musical soundtrack from Greek composer Vangelis - undeservedly overlooked for an Oscar nomination.

Stylistically, the film was arresting with fantastic, imaginative visual effects of a future Los Angeles conceived by futurist design artist Syd Mead, and influenced by the vision of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). [Mead had also been production designer for the same year's visually-pioneering TRON (1982), teamed with famed French futuristic illustrator Jean "Moebius" Giraud.] Another inspiration for the film was the 1974 science fiction book by novelist Alan E. Nourse titled The Bladerunner, set in the year 2014 about people who sold medical equipment and supplies to 'outlaw' doctors who were unable to obtain them legally. Many films have attempted to duplicate the dystopic, cyberpunkish look of Blade Runner, including Batman (1989), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Strange Days (1995), The Fifth Element (1997), Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999), and I, Robot (2004).

The ambitious, enigmatic, visually-complex film is a futuristic film noir detective thriller with all its requisite parts - an alienated hero of questionable morality, a femme fatale, airborne police vehicles called "Spinners", dark sets and locations in a dystopic Los Angeles of 2019, and a downbeat voice-over narration. The film mixed in some western genre elements as well, and is thematically similar to the story in High Noon (1952) of a lone marshal facing four western outlaws.

The main character in Blade Runner is a weary, former police officer/bounty hunter who is reluctantly dispatched by the state to search for four android replicants (robotic NEXUS models) that have been created with limited life spans (a built-in fail-safe mechanism in case they became too human). [Dustin Hoffman and many other actors were considered for the role of the title character, blade-runner Deckard.] The genetically-engineered renegades have escaped from enslaving conditions on an Off-World outer planet. Driven by fear, they have come to Earth to locate their creator and force him to prolong their short lives.

The film's theme, the difficult quest for immortality, is supplemented by an ever-present eye motif - there are various VK eye tests, an Eye Works factory, and other symbolic references to eyes as being the window to the soul. Scott's masterpiece also asks the veritable question: what does it mean to be truly human? One of its main posters advertised the tagline: "MAN HAS MADE HIS MATCH - NOW IT'S HIS PROBLEM."

The film's screenplay (originally titled Dangerous Days and Android) by Hampton Fancher, and later supplemented by David Peoples, was based on science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Film
Novel
Title: Blade Runner (words that never appeared in the novel) Title: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - was an obscure reference to the fact that inhabitants lived in a society of the future where animals were virtually extinct and all but the rich had to substitute android replicas (such as an "electric sheep") for real animals
Takes place in Los Angeles in 2019 Takes place in San Francisco in 1992 (2021 in a later edition)
The artificial humans are called replicants, who are much more resistant to being killed and retaliatory when confronted; in the film, the replicants' full life span was deliberately curtailed by a four-year limit The artificial humans are called androids ("andies"), who live roughly four years because their cells cannot be replaced when they deteriorate
The film's theme is on the nature of humanity (what does it mean to be human?) and how to distinguish replicants from humans The novel's emphasis is on ecological themes, and the situation in which a nuclear world war caused life to be the way it is; key elements including the Penfield Mood Organ, the Empathy box, Buster Friendly, and Mercerism are not found in the film, as is the ever-present radioactive dust
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is divorced, and a retired replicant hunter called 'blade runner' who is brought back into action to kill the returning replicants Rick Deckard is married to a wife named Iran, and he is an active android (also termed "andy's")  or Sam Spade-style "bounty hunter" (the term 'blade runner' never appears in the novel); he also keeps an electric sheep (of the novel's title) on the roof, wishing desperately he had the money to own a 'real' animal
Rachael (Sean Young) is a replicant who is unaware she's not human; she and Deckard fall in love Rachael is known as Rachael Rosen - she is a schizophrenic human who cannot pass the V-K test. She is an android.
Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) is an exotic dancer, and Deckard shoots her in the back, and regrets it Luba Luft is an opera singer, and Deckard doesn't kill her out of pity - another hunter does
Pris (Daryl Hannah) is an acrobatic replicant, completely different from Rachael; Pris and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) (a major heroic figure in the film) are lovers Pris is an android version of Rachael; Roy's last name is spelled "Baty"
J.R. Sebastian is a mad-scientist genius (a top-level genetic engineer) who cannot leave Earth due to the Methuselah Syndrome JR is known as J.R. Isidore - he is a "chickenhead" idiot (radiation-brain damaged) not allowed to leave Earth due to his low IQ
Deckard never takes the V-K test and his humanity is questionable - it's likely he's also a replicant (or 'android') Deckard is proven by V-K test to be human
Character is Eldon Tyrell Character is known as Eldon Rosen

Originally filmed without a monotone, explanatory voice-over in a somber, Raymond Chandler-like manner, two elements were demanded by the studio after disastrous preview test screenings:

The Director's Cut: Since that time, the 1992 revised 'Director's Cut' (of 117 minutes) was released to mark the film's 10th anniversary with a new digital soundtrack - it dropped Harrison Ford's mostly redundant voice-over and restored the film's original darker and contemplative vision. Many Blade Runner afficionados prefer the subtlety of the film's images in the restored version rather than the slow and monotonous tone of the earlier 1982 film with voice-over. The 'director's cut' also substituted a less upbeat and shorter, more ambiguous, non-Hollywood ending, and it inserted a new scene of a 'unicorn reverie' (an unused take from Scott's fantasy film Legend (1986)) at the end. It also emphasized and enriched the romantic angle between Ford and a beautiful replicant played by Sean Young, and more clearly revealed that Harrison Ford's character was an android himself. Science fiction aficionados and fans treat both films as separate entities in their own right: in the 1982 release, Deckard is human. In the 1992 director's cut, Deckard is a replicant.

The Ultimate Collector's Edition: Although director Ridley Scott had significantly re-edited his film in 1992, he went further with this 2007 edition for the film's 25th anniversary. This definitive version contained never-before-seen added/extended scenes, added lines, corrected several technical flaws, and included new and improved special effects. Among the bonus material highlights was a brand new, three-and-a-half-hour documentary by award-winning DVD producer Charles de Lauzirika titled Dangerous Days. Scott said that his re-edited film was now "in its purest form." Among the changes, the "unicorn" scene was made longer - to reinforce the idea that Deckard was a replicant.

The Story

This synopsis is based upon the original 1982 film version, unless noted otherwise.

The film begins with a scrolling prologue about escaped slaves that are now considered android adversaries:

Early in the 21st Century, THE TYRELL CORPORATION advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase - a being virtually identical to a human - known as a replicant.

The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them.

Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets.

After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth - under penalty of death.

Special police squads - BLADE RUNNER UNITS - had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant.

This was not called execution.

It was called retirement.

LOS ANGELES NOVEMBER, 2019

The film is set in the industrial wasteland of Los Angeles in the year 2019, on an Earth that is in physical and psychological decay - without a trace of nature. In the opening, panoramic long shot, fire belches out of oil refinery towers and factory smokestacks in the industrial overgrowth. There are thousands of city lights flickering in the misty night air. Futuristic vehicles cruise through the darkened, polluted sky where the sun doesn't shine.

Barely visible in the distance are two huge buildings with spotlights shining out of their tops. They are flat-topped pyramidal buildings hundreds of floors high, much higher than any other run-down skyscrapers below them. A huge, disembodied eye stares unblinkingly at the city stretched before it, reflecting back the city and a fiery smokestack in its clear surface.

[References to eyes are profoundly common and rampant throughout the film: eye symbolism, eye and vision motifs, glowing replicant eyes, Tyrell's magnifying glasses that emphasize his eyes, the Voight-Kampf empathy test that focuses on the subject's eyes, "Chew's Eye Works," the owl's wary eyes, and the gouging of eyes. The viewer has to be wary, however - vision doesn't necessarily guarantee certainty and truth for the viewer. The world of Blade Runner contains many simulations or fakes - photographs, memory implants, artificial animals (animoids), and of course, manufactured replicants.]

The camera moves forward and locates one of the two massive skyscraper structures shaped like an Egyptian pyramid (or a mammoth Aztec temple or Babylonian ziggurat) without a top - they are the gigantic Tyrell Corporation headquarters. Their exteriors are similar to the interior of a vast computer with an intricate micro-chip design. High up above the street level, an interrogation is taking place in a smoke-filled room.

A futuristic Voigt-Kampff machine administers an empathy test, a test device similar to a lie detector that measures emotional responses. The device focuses in on the subject's human iris and measures involuntary fluctuations. The nervous, lower-level employee is Leon Kowalski (Brion James), an "engineer, waste-disposal, file-section, new employees, six days." [The test is useful in spotting replicants - if a replicant, Leon's eyes would faintly glow and his eye fluctuations and reaction times wouldn't be normal.]

Leon reacts antagonistically when hypothetically questioned by a suspicious, hostile and abrasive test administrator, a blade runner named Holden (Morgan Paull). [He has an uncanny resemblance to another soon-to-be-introduced blade runner named Deckard - implying that they are both assembly-line made, cookie-cutter replicants]:

You're in a desert walking along in the sand when all of a sudden you look down...and you see a tortoise, Leon, it's crawling toward you...the tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over but it can't, not without your help, but you're not helping.

Then the subject changes to a key question that replicants would find impossible to answer: "Describe in single words, only the good things that come into your mind about: your mother." Leon, sarcastically answering the question: "My mother?...Let me tell you about my mother" blasts a smug, seated Holden with his concealed handgun under the table, sending the questioner through an adjoining office's wall. Then, he blasts him a second time.

The scene cuts to an overhead view of the night-time cityscape, composed of smaller skyscrapers left over from the 20th century and a huge media or vid-screen (with the giant, smiling image of a pill-popping geisha girl). [Electrical advertising throughout the film features sponsors, including TDK, Atari, Coca-Cola, Pan-Am, Budweiser, RCA, Kinney Shoes, Bulova, Cuisinart and Schlitz. A supposed 'curse' of the film has been noted, since some of the companies have since gone out of business, faced financial losses, or declared bankruptcy.] A blinking, mammoth overhead blimp cruises above - its loudspeakers advertise and promote the good life elsewhere with neon signs and huge graphics. Life on Earth is very difficult with a shortage of natural resources, so the blimps tout the virtues of the Off-World colonies to the packed hordes of night-crawling humanity below:

A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure...New climate, recreational facilities...absolutely free. Use your new friend as a personal body servant or a tireless field hand -- the custom tailored genetically engineered humanoid replicant designed especially for your needs. So come on America, let's put our team up there...

Climactic changes bring an incessant acid rainfall, mist, and fog to the dreary, grimy, congested landscape. The city, a melange of Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, and other metropolitan areas, is in ruins. The neon-lit, dark, downtown streets are populated by the lower class dregs of society, an odd beleaguered assortment of police, Asians, Spanish, street gangs and punks carrying glowing umbrella handles.

In contrast to the film's opening panoramic level, the camera now descends down to the street level. It zooms through the crowd to the title character - a retired, burnt-out Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, famous for his previous screen appearances in Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)), who is leaning against a store display window, filled with television sets with awful reception. He looks up toward the blimp, flashing graphic catchphrases to highlight upscale life on the galactic Off-World colonies. Deckard is reading a newspaper, headlined: "Farming the Oceans, the Moon and Antarctica."

He narrates in a melancholy voice-over that he once worked in LA as a blade runner [a hunter living on a knife's edge between life and death, humanity and inhumanity], part of an elite squad of killers hired to track down and execute illegal 'replicants.' [Replicants are life-like humanoid models or slaves created on an assembly line by the Tyrell Corporation.] He has become disillusioned with his profession - as a bounty hunter of androids. 'Blade Runner' is only a cleaner, more antiseptic term for a cold-hearted killer. Now withdrawn from his job after quitting, he mixes in with the masses of humanity on the LA streets:

(voice over) They don't advertise for killers in a newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-cop, ex-blade runner, ex-killer.

Wearing a floppy brown trenchcoat [typical of detectives in classic film noirs], he walks over to order raw fish over noodles at the neon-illuminated, White Dragon Noodle Bar, arguing in Japanese with the manager of the cafe over the amount of food he can eat. He also muses to himself about how impersonal, burned-out, and cold he had become as a killer of replicants:

(voice over) Sushi, that's what my ex-wife called me. Cold fish.

While the free-lance, unemployed ex-cop eats with chopsticks at the crowded, open-air food bar, he is approached from behind by two men: one a bulletproof-vested cop, the other, a dapper, mustached Mexican-Japanese Gaff (Edward James Olmos), an employee of the blade runner unit. Although he is supposedly being arrested, Deckard doesn't want to be recognized: "You got the wrong guy, pal." He is again addressed in thick-accented city-speak lingo: "Lo fa, ne-ko shi-ma, de va-ja blade runner." Deckard pretends he doesn't understand, but the cafe manager interprets: "He say you Blade Runner." [Supposedly, Gaff partially speaks in Hungarian, and the above sentence is translated: 'Bullshit, no way, you are the Blade Runner.']

The ex-blade runner is detained and taken through the drippy, noisy streets with honking horns. He is escorted to the vertically-opening, winged doors of the cockpit of a sleek, vertically-lifting 'Spinner' - a futuristic hovercar that lifts up and flies above the LA streets to police headquarters. The interior of the glass bubble cockpit houses an onboard computer and data screens for sensing traffic patterns. During flight, the crushing outer, urban world slides past the window.

The charmer's name was Gaff. I'd seen him around. Bryant must have upped him to the Blade Runner unit. That gibberish he talked was city-speak, guttertalk, a mismash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you. I didn't really need a translator. I knew the lingo. Every good cop did. But I wasn't gonna make it easier for him.

After landing at Police Headquarters - a brilliant shot as the police spinner rotates one way while the camera rotates in the opposite direction [a reference to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)], Deckard is directed to ex-boss Inspector M. Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) office for a briefing - a location he knows well. Bryant is a bullish, balding, middle-aged man that Deckard doesn't fully trust - just in case, the former officer selects a proferred glass of whiskey not directly put before him. A reluctant Deckard is called back to duty and told of his mission, to track down a group of murderous cyborg replicants, advanced NEXUS 6 androids. Replicants, according to Deckard's racist, no-nonsense ex-boss Bryant, are the 'niggers' or slave labor of the future who have no rights or value:

Bryant: Hi ya, Deck...You wouldn't have come if I just asked you to. Sit down, pal. Come on, don't be an ass-hole Deckard. I've got four skin jobs walking the streets.
Deckard (voice-over): Skin jobs. That's what Bryant called replicants. In history books, he's the kind of cop that used to call black men niggers.
Bryant: They jumped a shuttle Off-world, killed the crew and passengers. They found the shuttle drifting off the coast two weeks ago so we know they're around.
Deckard: Embarrassing.
Bryant: No sir. Not embarrassing, because no one's ever going to find out they're down here. Because you're going to spot them, and you're gonna air 'em out.
Deckard: I don't work here anymore. Give it to Holden - he's good.
Bryant: I did. He can breathe OK as long as nobody unplugs him. He's not good enough - not as good as you. I need you, Deck. This is a bad one, the worst yet. I need the old blade runner, I need your magic.

During the confrontation, the weird-acting Gaff makes one of his trademark origami paper-folding sculptures - a chicken. Deckard is given "no choice" but to accept his assignment.


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