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Review: Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner (1982)

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Premise: Based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Set in the future, human beings have created an industry of lifelike androids known as Replicants which society uses as slave labor. Four Replicants escape and try to find their maker while a detective (Harrison Ford) is charged with hunting them down and killing them.

What Works: In the history of cinema there are a few films that represent demarcation points, pictures that changed how films are made or redefined the visual vocabulary. Within science fiction there are a handful of pictures that qualify as this kind of milestone: Metropolis, Frankenstein, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Star Wars. Blade Runner is one of those films, although it wasn’t necessarily apparent in 1982 when the picture was released. This film has become a classic of the genre and it is a thoughtful and challenging film. Blade Runner was adapted from a novel by Philip K. Dick; his work often included philosophical and political themes and other films adapted from his work include Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, and Minority Report. Blade Runner is one of the better, if not the best, adaptation of Dick’s work because the style of the filmmaking complements the themes of the story. With its rainy urban environments and gritty neon metropolis, Blade Runner is visually stunning but it’s also a contemplative film and the images are connected to the ideas. Blade Runner is led by Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, a man who does society’s dirty work and this type of character is familiar from noir thrillers like The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown. As is often the case with these kinds of characters, Deckard is a basically decent but cynical guy who recognizes that the system is corrupt but goes along with it until he takes a case that pushes his apathy to the breaking point. Blade Runner brings that noir setup to a science fiction film and that combination is complementary since science fiction and film noir are often about disillusionment. In this case Deckard reevaluates his own participation in the system. It is ironic to put Harrison Ford, the unflappable hero of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, in this role but Ford gives one of his better performances in Blade Runner. The film is also aided by the cast of Replicants, led by Batty, played by Rutger Hauer. There is a rage but also a sadness to Batty that is rooted in the character’s knowledge that his life has been devalued and marginalized in its very conception. The dual action of Deckard realizing he is the tool of an oppressive system and Batty coming to terms with his own victimhood makes for a powerful story that is morally ambiguous in the right way. Blade Runner is not a film that spells things out but rather lets the images speak for themselves and the picture comes to a finale in which the issues of identity, dignity, and mortality coalesce in a beautifully understated conclusion.

What Doesn’t: Blade Runner remains unique in part because it is a slow and cerebral picture. Science fiction films have been around since the dawn of cinema but only after the release of Star Wars and Alien (in 1977 and 1979, respectively) was the genre taken seriously by major studios. The filmmakers of Blade Runner benefitted from the fact that this kind of science fiction film was relatively new to Hollywood and so it was not made under the kind of expectations by studio heads and audiences that contemporary genre filmmakers must deal with. That lack of precedent was beneficial to the filmmakers, as it freed them to take creative risks. Blade Runner is in many respects an art film with the budget and resources of a studio picture. While that allowed the filmmakers of Blade Runner to make a unique and even visionary motion picture, it does not have the fast paced style of contemporary action films. For that reason Blade Runner may be of more interest to serious science fiction enthusiasts than the average moviegoer.

DVD extras: There are at least four different cuts of Blade Runner: the 1982 theatrical version seen in the United States, the 1982 international version, the 1992 director’s cut, and the 2007 final cut. Of the four versions the 2007 edition represents director Ridley Scott’s preferred cut. Blade Runner has been issued on DVD and Blu-ray in many different editions. The 30th Anniversary edition includes all four cuts plus a work print edition as well as documentaries and featurettes.  

Bottom Line: Blade Runner was not a blockbuster hit at the time of its original release but it has proven to be one of the most influential science fiction pictures of all time and its inspiration can be seen in movies like 1984, The Matrix, The Fifth Element, and Inception and the television series Battlestar Galactica. This is a dense film but it is also a smart one.

Episode: #408 (October 7, 2012)