“In a cyberpunk vision of the future, man has developed the technology to create replicants, human clones used to serve in the colonies outside Earth but with fixed lifespans. In Los Angeles 2019, Deckard is a Blade Runner, a cop who specialises in terminating replicants. Originally in retirement, he is forced to re-enter the force when six replicants escape from an offworld colony to Earth.” (courtesy IMDB)
Ridley Scott has been more influential than most other directors of equally limited fantasy output, like David Lynch and Nicolas Roeg, not only because he is more mainstream, but because he did something new in science fiction cinema – he created a genuine feeling of foreignness. He is a master of elaborately different settings, in which places in space or time are not simply sketched-in with a couple of alien-looking artifacts – they are vividly and solidly realised. After Ridley Scott, the design of science fiction films could never be the same again.
Blade Runner (1982) was loosely based on Philip K. Dick‘s classic novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? – an almost surrealist story about the relationship between man and machine, appearance and reality, tenderness and cruelty in an entropic future Earth that is slowly going down the toilet, with most of its population emigrated to other planets. The screenplay jettisoned many elements of Dick’s novel, in some cases during shooting, leaving some puzzling sequences. The film, for example, doesn’t make it clear that the rarity of real animal life has led to a thriving trade in robot copies of animals which, in turn, renders baffling the Voight-Kampff tests in which suspected androids are asked about dead animals.
These androids (called replicants in the film) are artificial human slaves who have escaped to revenge themselves on the human race, especially upon the scientist-entrepreneur who created them. Grim, unshaven and Bogart-like, Harrison Ford plays the bounty hunter whose task it is to locate and destroy these dangerous creatures, who have superhuman strength and are highly intelligent.
Over the last three decades there have been several different cuts of the film released, almost as many as Metropolis (1926), but the original release of Blade Runner was cut in such a way that its subtext was almost invisible. I doubt more than one in a hundred viewers understood that Rick Deckard, slayer of androids, may be an android himself without knowing it. He is, like the androids he hunts, curiously deficient in the emotion department. There is a subtle point being expressed here about what actually makes us human, and about destruction making us less human. Unlike so many science fiction films before or since, Blade Runner is quite adult.
Despite various incoherences in the narrative development and an appallingly sentimental scene tacked on by the studio to make it less pessimistic (Deckard drives into the sunset with his android lover), Blade Runner is extraordinary science fiction, its strength is the wonderful fullness of the near-future Los Angeles – crowded, tacky, half-visible through rain and steam, blending high technology with near-universal decay and heavily ‘orientalised’.
Visually the film is enormously exciting, but not in an obvious way. Scott makes heavy use of chiaroscuro – the bizarre sets are shadowy and dimly lit with shafts of light producing unexpected illuminations. Replicants Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) are wonderfully realised too, with two almost-unknown actors as the replicants on the run, with animal-like grace, physical perfection, full of frenetic energy, yet also curiously mechanical and capable of bursting into an oddly inhuman, scarifying violence, with no more visible emotion than a person stepping on an ant. This image is best captured when Pris conceals herself in a room full of life-size clockwork dolls and erupts into a violent attack on Deckard which also happens to be a narcissistic display of gymnastics. It is an uncanny scene. The film may indeed be disturbing for the squeamish, but the violence is unavoidably intrinsic to its central point.
Scott’s masterly direction evokes an alien world which has evolved visibly from our own. Los Angeles is weirdly futuristic yet some sequences are filmed in one of the city’s oldest buildings, Ennis House. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, it’s been used in House On Haunted Hill (1959), The Day Of The Locust (1975), The Rocketeer (1991), Cast A Deadly Spell II: Witch Hunt (1994), and Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992). Scott worked closely with artist Syd Mead to help visualise the details, a well-known industrial designer whose gouache renderings were vividly brought to life by production designer Larry Paull.
Unlike Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Blade Runner is more than just a magnificent tale – this time settings and narrative cohere into a striking whole, a film of thoughtful intricate substance, partly sustained by a convincing performance from Harrison Ford. Scott’s sense of both the exotic and the mundane qualities to be found in alien worlds – they are even present in his first film The Duellists (1977) which is, after all, set in the alien world of the past – makes him one of the most creative of all directors. Since I’ve discussed such intellectually stimulating cinema this week, I’m convinced you will show your gratitude by checking in again next week when I treat you to another huge slice of Public Domain pizza with extra clichÃ©s and a very cheesy crust for…Horror News! Toodles!