There are few movies which are generally considered to be “great”. By “great”, I mean a film that critics, directors, actors, producers, and fans consider to be a work that is original, influential, and a must see. Ridley Scott’s classic 1982 film ‘Blade Runner’ is one such film, and it is a must-see for any science fiction fan. The movie was a flop when it originally debuted, but it developed a cult following soon after. Critics, once dismissive, began to gush over the movie in years following. Today, not long after a definitive ‘final cut’ of the film was released to celebrated the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, ‘Blade Runner’ has finally achieved the place it deserves as a major work of film and science fiction. Media and culture website IGN recently rated it the greatest sci-fi film ever, and a poll by The Guardian found it to be the most popular sci-fi movie among scientists. Two of the most famous film critics in the English speaking world, Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode, both consider the movie to be a seminal work of the genre. And directors from Guillermo del Toro to Chris Nolan have cited it as a major influence on their careers. They all love ‘Blade Runner’. And you should too.
Here are a few reasons why.
Perhaps the single greatest success of ‘Blade Runner’, and the reason why the film is most celebrated, is the look and feel of the film. From the hell scape opening shot of Los Angeles circa 2019, with a skyline filled with fiery smoke stacks and endless grimy urban sprawl, Ridley Scott sets the mood early in some of the most carefully crafted visuals ever filmed. The city itself seems beset upon by endless rain and grey weather, a world in which pollution has darkened both the sky and the lives of the people who live below it. We met Harrison Ford, playing Rick Deckard, on a busy street filled with flashing neon lights piercing the dreary night as crowds in shabby but exotic dress shuffle this way and that. As the film unfolds, we are spoiled with lavishly constructed images of this fascinating world of a futuristic city this on its last leg. This idea of the “used future” goes against science fiction archetypes in which the future is so often pristine, clean, and orderly. Rather, this is a city whose structural beauty and urban decay can both awe and repulse. Even those not inclined to city life can’t help but be captivated by the stunning visuals of ‘Blade Runner’.
The movie sets up a society that in which themes of urban decay, overcrowding, mega corporations, environmental pollution, mass animal extinctions, artificial intelligence and the nature of humanity are all explored brilliantly without barraging the viewer with slanted political messages. Rather, the film’s ambiguity on several matters seems to take Earth’s decline for granted, as a natural evolution of a world increasingly urbanized, industrialized, and pollution. It is interesting to note the film’s insistence on running against stereotypes and commonly established themes. By the end of the film, we come to see the androids as almost more human than the humans, and view them as the sympathetic characters of the piece. And further, Rick Deckard, the film’s supposed great masculine figure, is found to be incapable of killing the two male androids. One dies of his own accord, and the other is killed by a woman, coming to Deckard’s rescue. Deckard does manage to kill the two female androids, one of whom he shoots in the back as she is running away. The strong male archetype is hardly on display here. What message this may be conveying isn’t overtly apparent, because ‘Blade Runner’ has a habit of raising more questions than it answers. Perhaps this is the film’s weakness, but it is also one of its great strengths.
‘Blade Runner’ is rife with philosophic questions concerning what it means to be human as well as various morality questions when it comes to designing artificial intelligence. What does it mean to be human? What exactly is a human? If we design a robot that looks, acts, sounds, and feels human, can it be considered such? What if such a robot can breath, eat, bleed, grow old, and die? What kind of life form is it? Can we treat these creatures in any way we wish, as slaves? Or must we afford them a degree of rights? Can they defend themselves, petition for freedom, or demand a better life? In our world in which artificial intelligence is increasingly moving from the realm of science fiction to the realm of science fact, we must confront these questions sooner or later. Robots designed in laboratories are more and more life like as the years go by, and they are getting smarter, too. So smart, in fact, that by 2030 we should have robots that are smarter than humans. If we put that intelligence into a mechanical body, and let it roam around, what exactly is it? Just a machine? Or something more? Fascinating questions, to be sure, and they prove that ‘Blade Runner’ is a film whose philosophic quandaries were ahead of their time.
One of the best reasons to see ‘Blade Runner’ is to watch Dutch actor Ruger Hauer’s performance. He plays Roy Batty, one of the male androids and the leader of this rogue group of androids. Some of the most beautiful lines in the movie were made up on the spot by Hauer, ad-libbed by an expert actor. His death scene is moving every time you see it. Harrison Ford does what he did so well back then, by shrugging into a role effortlessly, and playing a frumpy, disheveled anti-hero whose motivations are self serving and whose morale compass tends to swing this way and that. Backing up these two is a fantastic cast, from Sean Young playing Deckard’s love interest, to Edward James Olmos, portraying a bitter cop who nips at Deckard every turn, never passing up an opportunity to badger him. There isn’t a bad performance in this film, and that is a testament to the excellent casting that Ridley Scott did for this seminal work.
Lastly, I have to mention the film’s soundtrack. Crafted by Vangelis, this 80s-tastic music is filled with synthesizers and is very much a product of its time. But don’t let that turn you off. The music is at times moving, haunting, foreboding, and very much sets the tone for this world of high technology and low life. You can almost feel that cynicism of the ‘Blade Runner’ world in the dour tones of each track. If you want a treat, sit down and listen to ‘Blade Runner Blues’ (Seen Below), a prominent track throughout the movie that sounds like some kind of futuristic jazz. The sound is both haunting and inviting. It will leave you a bit unsettled but always wanting more.
‘Blade Runner’ is an incredibly important film both for sci-fi fans and film lovers in general. Its looks, its theme, its sound, its characters and its story are compelling and very much relevant today. Countless movies, shows, and video games have been influenced by Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. Those would include Ghost in the Shell, Total Recall, 12 Monkeys, Gattaca, Batman Begins, Battlestar Galactica, Deus Ex, and Mass Effect, among countless others. This is a movie which stands the test of time, which asks questions of its audience, which entertains but also inspires. Be warned, though, this movie takes a few viewings to settle in properly. You must understand the whole story to truly appreciate the nuanced nature of the film’s progression. But trust me, you won’t be sorry for the effort. You should love ‘Blade Runner’.
- Steve E. Brown