Despite my familiarity with Blade Runner this was the first time I’ve had the pleasure of watching it on the big screen. I couldn’t pass up the latest opportunity to see the re-released Final Cut version, which is currently doing the rounds in a few UK cinemas, and it has made me think even more highly of Ridley Scott’s dystopian sci-fi thriller (though, in truth, I’ve long considered it one of my favourite films anyway). There isn’t actually much difference between Scott’s Final Cut and the earlier Director’s Cut from 1992; it’s more a polishing of a few bells and whistles, as opposed to a drastic reinvention of the material, but 33 years after it first appeared in cinemas the English director’s vision of a futuristic city – the setting is Los Angeles in 2019 – remains fascinatingly plausible and as visually-arresting as it gets.
For the uninitiated, in this world the haves have fled a seemingly environmentally-ravaged and over-populated Earth – hello Elysium – to set up ‘off-world’ colonies, adverts for which loom ever present in the permanently dark skies above LA (along with the giant logos of more familiar products; Scott, who had a background in advertising, uses product placement in a creative way throughout). The have-nots remain below, as do others who choose to stick with the crowds and the constant rain; most people live their lives outside on the neon-lit streets, where Asian food and culture is dominant, and many buildings appear to be condemned or near-uninhabitable. Those wealthy or lucky enough to be able to spend their time higher up – in mega-skyscrapers that burst through the clouds – are able to enjoy a little sunshine, but for everyone else life looks relentlessly cold, damp and miserable. Simply being alive appears to be an achievement.
Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? leans heavily on hard-boiled gumshoe noir, both in terms of production design, characterisation and plot. The main protagonist is retired cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a Hammett-esque heavy-drinking, mac-wearing cynic who predictably cannot resist the lure of his old job when his former supervisor Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh) comes a-calling. Deckard is a retired ‘Blade Runner’, a specialised hunter of replicants, which are biologically-engineered beings built for war, work and pleasure that are also capable of developing their own feelings. Four of these replicants have staged a mutiny and have returned to Earth, where their presence is illegal, in order to seek extra life; as a security measure each model has been fabricated with an in-built lifespan of four years, but Deckard’s job is to hunt them down regardless.
Though the core plot is simple, and easy to follow, there are complicating factors (and be warned, if you have never seen the film, that spoilers follow): Deckard falls in love with a beautiful replicant named Rachael (Sean Young), an employee of the Tyrell Corporation, the company that made the four rogue models. Meanwhile there is the suggestion that Deckard is himself a replicant, and that his memories are implanted. Famously the Director’s Cut included a unicorn-featuring dream sequence that pretty much confirms this, but there are other less-celebrated and more subtle signifiers that also suggest as much, most of which existed in the original cinema release: Scott and editors Terry Rawlings and Marsha Nakashima went to great lengths to link Deckard and lead replicant Roy Batty (a scene-stealing career peak for Rutger Hauer) during their climactic fight, for example, especially when Deckard tries to repair a hand with broken fingers and Batty tries to fight against impending death by driving a nail through his own palm.
Interestingly, with the Final Cut Scott emphasises the presence of the film’s religious links. If Batty is the film’s Jesus figure, as well as its vicious antihero, then Tyrell (Joe Turkel) is more clearly treated as a representation of God (and, extending the theme, chief engineer JF Sebastian (William Sanderson) fulfills the role of the Holy Ghost). When Batty finally meets his maker, Tyrell is even confirmed as such, as the replicant demands “I want more life, Father.” This was a risky move by Scott, as in earlier versions the line is “I want more life, fucker”, and it’s one of the most-quoted and loved by fans, but I think both versions work just as well as each other. (Incidentally that line is delivered in front of the watching eyes of Tyrell’s owl, a guardian of the underworlds in ancient Egyptian culture, and a protector of the dead.) I am a fan of the enhanced religious subtext in the Final Cut, but primarily because it still remains a suggestion throughout; it doesn’t intrude too much.
Scott’s latest version plays around with dialogue elsewhere. The action shifts briefly to a North African / Middle Eastern district of Los Angeles, and the original cinema release and 1992 Director’s Cut both included an out-of-sync scene featuring Deckard and an Egyptian snake salesman. For the Final Cut Scott tried in vain to find a suitable ADR track, and eventually employed Harrison Ford’s son Benjamin – a chef by trade – to lipsynch; Benjamin Ford’s lips were even superimposed over his father’s, which I think is a nice touch given the film’s concerns with artificiality. Elsewhere the death of deadly replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) is improved by the removal of the head of an obvious stunt double (ouch!), which is in turn replaced by Cassidy’s (double ouch!), and enhancements were made to some other visual effects. The film’s much-celebrated score by Vangelis – which still sounds fresh today – has also been tweaked, though not in any way that would be considered substantial.
There are sublime moments littered throughout the film. You probably know them as well as I do. The first twenty minutes, during which this futuristic place is established and explored, is the highlight for me, beginning with the initial belches of fire from giant smokestacks and the slow zoom in to Tyrell’s pyramid-like headquarters, where Leon (Brion James) is undergoing a ‘Voight-Kampff’ test, a method used to identify replicants. The groundbreaking work of the special effects team has ensured that Blade Runner’s vast cityscape of flying cars, giant buildings and video adverts looks fresh today, while many contemporary films in the early 1980s presented visions of the future that are barely-credible thirty years later. The basic-looking monitors date the film, and the flying cars may not exist yet, but it’s interesting that a number of western and eastern metropolises have taken on many of the features of Scott’s Los Angeles in the years since the original cinema release.
Its influence on countless dark sci-fi thrillers since is obvious, but just recently I watched Ghost In The Shell, a Japanese anime covering similar ground that included a matching fascination with mannequins, dolls and eyes. Both films share a bleak, downbeat tone, and both tap into the loneliness experienced by some people in cities, despite the fact huge numbers of fellow citizens mill around them. JF Sebastian is the only person living in his building and engineers robotic toys for company, for example. Deckard lives by himself, miserably tapping away on the piano as he makes his way to the bottom of yet another bottle. Tyrell is wealthy but is seen alone in bed in a giant penthouse above the clouds. In this cold, lonely film they are characters who are just existing, rather than enjoying life; the script repeatedly points out that Batty has experienced far more in four years than any human will in a lifetime. How depressing it all seems.
Few films hold my interest if I’ve watched them more than five times, but I never switch off from Blade Runner, despite my familiarity with the material. It’s always a pleasure to immerse oneself in Scott’s fantastical world: the wealth of ideas (both fresh and stolen) always impresses me, the soundtrack gives me goosebumps and the acting is extremely enjoyable to watch (particularly Hauer, but Young uses an icy exterior to mask interior doubts and hurt superbly and Ford is at his weary, half-defeated movie star best). A fine science fiction film, then, but also a gripping thriller and a poignant tragedy. Aside from a scene in which the convergence of several major characters in a small part of the city at the same time stretches plausibility a little too far (yes, even in a picture containing flying cars) it is near-faultless.
Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples. Based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Edward James Olmos, Daryl Hannah, Brion James, William Sanderson, Joe Turkel, Joanna Cassidy.
Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth.
Editing: Terry Rawlings, Marsha Nakashima.
Running Time: 117 minutes.
Year: 1982 (Final Cut: 2007).