People will endlessly tell you that Blade Runner is a brilliant exploration of identity and artificiality in a corporate universe. It is those things, though I’d have to say that the source material, Philip K. Dick’s amazing novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, explores these themes in much more daring and challenging ways. No, the real brilliance and influence of Blade Runner is the rich world that Scott creates for the story and characters to inhabit. Every time I watch it, I find myself almost ignoring the plot and characters to stare at the sets and art direction. The city is gorgeously dark and forboding with its giant ad blimps, stark pyramidal mega-buildings, and flying cars zooming through polluted darkness. Scott also does a great job blending noir and sf. This film almost single-handedly plants the seeds for the genre of cyberpunk.
In 2019, Los Angeles is a densely populated, overcast, polluted hellhole in a world run by amoral corporations. Lifelike robots called replicants have been invented to serve humanity, especially in space, but these robots have a tendency to rebel. Some escape and try to blend in to the human population. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a blade runner, tasked with finding and “retiring” rogue replicants. Deckard is drawn out of retirement to hunt a group of replicants that are trying to extend their brief lives. He also begins to fall in love with an especially complex replicant named Rachel (Sean Young), in the film’s best scenes.
I’ll readily admit the film’s greatness, though I’m personally not as fond of it as most sf fans. Really, anytime the replicants Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Roy (Rutger Hauer) are at the center of attention, my eyes glaze over…and that’s most of the film’s final third. I think Scott was more interested in creating threatening villains than exploring the aforementioned complexities of identity. So, these replicants spend all of their time threatening and killing (and flipping around and punching Harrison Ford), and we don’t get much of a sense of the emotions they’ve developed or the moral complexities of their situation. On paper, this should be a very ambivalent situation, but Scott can’t resist a brutally physical confrontation between “good” and “evil” at the film’s climax. Things do thankfully get more complex at the end of the fight between Roy and Deckard, but that only serves to make the preceding twenty minutes of flipping, punching, and shooting feel all the more pointless. The film has gone through several different cuts, but I’m still yet to see one that’s paced well. But, the subtext is there if you look for it, and, most importantly, the film looks gorgeous.
1982 was a great year for science fiction films. It also saw the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is still the best Star Trek film, in my opinion, and easily one of the top five science fiction films of the ‘80s. Still, it’s hard to argue with Blade Runner beating it for the Hugo. I’m not as keen on E.T. beating both Khan and Blade Runner for the Saturn, but that is an understandable decision as well.