I can’t actually remember the first time I saw Blade Runner. I think the soundtrack was imprinted on me before I ever did, a synthy and at times jazzy moodscape by Vangelis. It conjures up an odd sort of future nostalgia; warm, reflective and sad, slightly dehumanized by being all electronic but deeply emotional at the same time. The perfect tone for Blade Runner then, which is about humanity and artificial life. The screenplay was based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
To sum up the plot, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a Blade Runner who gets tasked with hunting down four ‘replicants’, also known as ‘skin jobs’. These are artificial humans so close to the real thing that only an involved emotional response test – known as a ‘Voight-Kampff’ test – can suss them out. Contradicting this a little is that sometimes a replicant’s eyes will glow oddly when light hits them in a certain way. You’d think this would make for a far easier way to spot them.
Replicants were used as slaves but they rebelled and are now seen as a danger. Any replicants found on Earth are ‘retired’, meaning killed. Moral ambiguity abounds. The replicants in the movie do bad things, and have killed innocents, but they almost always act out of self-preservation. Would they have killed if no one was hunting them, if they were just set free? Isn’t Deckard in the wrong here? Things get even more noir and muddy when he finds himself emotionally entangled with a classy replicant called Rachael (Sean Young). By the end, both he and the viewer are questioning his humanity.
The tech-noir world of Blade Runner is stunning. It is wet and dark, lit up by neon, peppered by Japanese influences. The city it shows consists of giant, futuristic buildings with people bustling in busy, grimey streets underneath. Despite the crowds, the insides of buildings tend to be shown as roomy and mostly empty. I guess the majority of people are commuters. Big, upturned collars are in vogue – but Deckard’s love interest may be overdoing it.
The cinematography and lighting do their best to make each scene as moody as possible, aided in no small part by the soundtrack. This universe feels oddly timeless, more like an alternate reality than anything else. It is supposedly 2019 but the technology is partly way ahead of us and partly charmingly antiquated. The visuals on computer screens are incredibly simple and mostly text-based but somehow people managed to build artificial life that’s almost indistinguishable from the real thing. The movie has cute ideas about how digitally examining a printed copy of a photo would work. Apparently you can keep zooming in without losing sharpness and even shift views sideways to reveal new information not in the original photograph. As you listen to the voice instructions that Deckard is giving a simple Photoshop-like program and see what the program actually ends up doing, it is hard to suppress an eye-roll. And yet, it manages to look and sound cool at the same time.
There are multiple versions of Blade Runner. Unique to the Final Cut is that some of the visuals were retooled, taking the rough edges off special effects. Notably, a scene has been fixed where it was originally very clear that a stunt double was at work. The world has never looked more seamless, making it easier to lose yourself in it.
This version lacks a much-maligned voice-over by Deckard that the studio demanded for the theatrical release, fearing the audience would be confused. I tried to put myself in the frame of mind of someone who has never seen the movie but can’t imagine why an explanatory voice-over was deemed necessary. The main points of the story are easy enough to grasp and the movie doesn’t move at such breakneck pace that you don’t have time to reconstruct what is going on. Other than that, for those in the know, in this version the unicorn is ‘in’ and the grassy hills are ‘out’.
There was one scene between detective Deckard and his dangerous dame Rachael that bothered me a little. It is a moment during their troubled romance where she says ‘no’ and he convinces her with some pressure that she means ‘yes’. It may be a well-worn noir cliche, but it sends an odd message. But then, even though it is a film about the future, it is peppered with relics from an old-fashioned past.
If you have any love for Blade Runner, you should also check out the three and a half hours long making-of documentary Dangerous Days. It goes in-depth about the movie’s troubled production and it is a must-see. The doc can be found with special editions of the Final Cut and no doubt on-demand somewhere online.
Blade Runner remains one of my favorite movies of all time. It pairs a simple, philosophically interesting story with an abundance of atmosphere. And it offers an appealing blend of warmth and sadness that other films have struggled to replicate.