This year marks the 30th Anniversary of what many consider to be the greatest Science Fiction film of all time. Since it first hit movie screens in 1982, Blade Runner still holds up amazingly well today. The thought-provoking concepts and visual splendor of the film have not aged at all, and was a precursor to cyber punk. In fact, it’s actually more relevant today than it was 30 years ago. This movie is like The Matrix (1999) of our generation and arguably the most influential and enduring cult film of our time. It is loosely based on a story from the brilliant mind of one of the most surreal and prolific Sci-fi writer of our time, Philip K. Dick, and made by one of the most visually innovative and talented directors of our time, Ridley Scott.
It was not a big hit, and underrated by critics when it first came out in theaters in the summer of 1982. Yes, I did see it that summer, having read the novel previously because I was already a fan of Harrison Ford’s portrayals as Han Solo in Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Indiana Jones in Raider of the Lost Ark (1981) just a year earlier. I remember many critics at the time accusing Ridley Scott of being more interested in his sets than the story, which may be true, but the movie was ahead of its time and ultimately had a lasting impact on our culture and cinema. Its visual style of a bleak urban dystopian, Moebius influenced, discarded world, with a mix of vintage and grungy futuristic look has become iconic and copied by countless films and directors who have come after.
Blade Runner is a quiet mood piece with a haunting, eerie and bluesy soundtrack by Vangelis, a futuristic film noir that overwhelms you with its abundance of visual detail, and completely immerses you in its plausible vision of a depopulated future world, where most of the people have left to colonize another planet and the remaining people are misfits and outcasts of society that didn’t qualify for an off-world life. Earth has become an outdated, industrial garbage planet, stripped of all its resources, where most animals are now extinct and everyone owns mechanical pets.
The story, adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ is about an ex-cop bounty hunter named Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, who hunts down and terminates escaped rogue androids that are being used as slave labor on other planets and are seeking refuge on Earth by hiding among the general population.
The androids in Blade Runner however, called replicants in the movie, are not like the robots or cyborgs that we usually find in other movies like Terminator (1984) or RoboCop (1987). These advanced robots are physically indistinguishable from humans in every way. They look like real people and even have emotions, urges and memories that are implanted at birth. They are more like clones, manufactured with organic materials but with a shorter life span. The only way that an android can be detected is with an empathy test, administered with a machine that measures emotional responses to a series of questions designed to evoke empathy, which is the only emotion that replicants are not capable of feeling; the ability to identify with the suffering or joy of other living creatures.
The other problem is that, the only way this test can be administered, is with the cooperation of the test subject, and in the case of an android, that is not done without considerable danger to the person who is giving the test, as androids are much stronger than humans, if you can even get the android’s cooperation in the first place. To complicate things further, in some cases the replicant doesn’t even know that it is an artificial person, giving rise to the possibility of a sexual relationship between android and human. Consequently, Deckard finds that his ability to empathize with replicants, increasingly gets in the way of the difficult task of exterminating them.
It’s no wonder that this highly original premise and the first major movie based on his work, made Philip K. Dick’s reputation in the literary world as a philosophical and prophetic writer of alternate realities, and a highly sought after author in Hollywood. Since Blade Runner, Philip’s novels and short stories have been the inspiration for many popular films including Total Recall (1990), Minority Report (2002), A Scanner Darkly (2006) and The Adjustment Bureau (2011).
Ridley Scott is considered the master of visually stunning photography and set design in modern cinema, and Blade Runner is widely considered his masterpiece when it comes to a fully realized, visually breathtaking work of fiction. Ridley started his career with such strikingly beautiful films as The Duelists (1977) and Alien (1979) before making Blade Runner, and went on to make highly successful groundbreaking films like Legend (1985), Thelma & Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001), Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Robin Hood (2010).
For more information about the making and legacy of Blade Runner read the excellent book by Paul M. Sammon titled ‘Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner’, and also watch the definitive documentary on the making of the film titled ‘Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner’.