It’s a shame in some ways that Ridley Scott’s Prometheus ended up being the title of his underwhelming prequel to Alien rather his imagining of Philip K. Dick’s short story Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
As great a title as Blade Runner is, the influence of the mythical Greek figure who defied the natural order to play god is more appropriate to the maverick Brit’s masterpiece.
Like many masterpieces, however, Scott had to wait for the critical fraternity to come around to his way of thinking – audiences at the time were more interested in watching an extra terrestrial try to phone home than a rain-soaked noir set in a future teetering on the brink.
Admittedly, what audiences were presented with in 1982 was far from what Scott had originally intended. Unsure of what it was dealing with, Warner Bros insisted that a Blade Runner for dummies narration (supplied by a less-than-enthusiastic Harrison Ford) be included explaining what is, on paper, a pretty straightforward narrative. Even more galling to Scott was the bolted on happy ending (using outtakes from Kubrick’s The Shining, ironically) which flew against pretty much everything in the previous 116 minutes and led the director to consider disowning the movie.
A reappreciation of the film led to a ‘director’s cut’ being released in 1992. Although much closer to Scott’s original vision, it wasn’t truly his edit, having been put together by film preservationist Michael Arick based on the director’s notes.
It would take a further 15 years before Scott finally received complete artistic control and this ‘final cut’ remains the last word in a sorry saga that has dredged up at least five different versions of what is still regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made.
Whilst the redundant voiceover and happy ending had been exorcised in the director’s cut, the final cut introduces fascinating new footage that, for many (me included), confirms a commonly held theory as to the background of lead character and titular Blade Runner Richard Deckard (Ford) and makes other, more subtle, digital alterations that could teach a thing or three to George Lucas about less sometimes being more.
According to Scott, Blade Runner “is a film set 40 years hence, made in the style of 40 years ago”. The Los Angeles of 2019 as depicted is unlikely to come to pass in the next three years (President Trump may have other ideas), but the director’s vision of a future he feels many of us may bear witness to in our lifetimes is arguably the most immersive and detailed vision any sci-fi has ever put on screen.
The attention to detail remains astonishing, whether it be the swarms of people going about their business holding umbrellas with the shafts lit up, the multi-cultural fusion of Asian, industrial Britain and American design, or the giant electronic billboards that either seem to advertise soft drinks (some things never change) or feature geishas pushing cigarettes.
Scott’s background in visual design has never been put to better use and he’s helped by a team working at the top of their game, including special effects supervisor David Dryer who was heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in realising the look of the city, in particular the pyramid-shaped Tyrell Corporation building that dominates the LA skyline.
The extraordinary soundtrack by Vangelis is another touchstone; at once, like the film itself, looking backwards and forwards – a woozy ambient composition that also features an unforgettable contribution from saxophonist Dick Morrissey. Indeed, the soundtrack makes even greater sense thanks to the more fully realised love affair between Deckard and Rachael (Sean Young) that is one of the final cut’s more prominent introductions.
Deckard remains one of Ford’s richest performances, an often unlikable loner who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty but unwittingly lets his guard down when confronted with someone who is as fascinated with him as he is with her. Young, in an early starring role, is far more than the femme fatales who so often populate noirs, imbuing Rachael with a vulnerability and stillness that both bely and reinforce her artificial origins.
Likewise, Darryl Hannah as the “basic pleasure model” Pris, Joanna Cassidy as the snake-loving Zhora (“beauty and the beast – she’s both”) and Brion James as the bug-eyed Leon play their parts in such a way as to be one small step removed from human – something only the elaborate Voight-Kampff polygraph-style machine can pick up.
However, Blade Runner belongs to Rutger Hauer, who delivers a mesmeric performance as Roy Batty, the magnetic leader of the escaped Nexus 6 Replicant gang who arrive from off world on Earth looking for answers from their maker – Dr Tyrell (Joe Turkel sporting some of the best glasses in movie history). Both Philip K. Dick and Scott were reportedly sold on Hauer from the start, struck by his Aryan looks and piercing eyes, and the actor delivered on that faith, giving us one of cinema’s most memorable screen presences and one of its most oft-quoted speeches (famously written by the actor).
Roy’s howl of rage against the ticking of a clock he has no control over, in spite of his best efforts, is an utterly human response, while the grace and mercy he displays in saving Deckard’s life come the final reel elevate the character into messianic territory – nail driven through hand and all.
The Tyrell Corporation’s motto of ‘more human than human’ could be used to describe not only Roy, but also Rachael and – dramatic pause – Deckard (their only physical giveaway of artificiality is an otherworldly eye reflection – indeed, eyes are a key symbol throughout).
The film’s influence is still being felt today, from the films of Christopher Nolan to The Matrix, anime and about a million other sci-fi movies. One need only watch HBO’s Westworld to see Blade Runner‘s visual imprint.
Cinema gives us too few examples of genuine transcendence – Blade Runner is one of them.