Since Blade Runner 2049 hit theatres back in 2017, there was a new hype surrounding the cinematic sci-fi world launched by Sir Ridley Scott back in 1982. Underrated and possibly ‘underappreciated’ by most moviegoers, this franchise finally got the prestige and the attention it deserves. In fact, this is the very same franchise that helped launch the genre called “Cyberpunk“, which merges futuristic dystopia, hacker culture and the rise of cyborgs/artificial intelligence. Since the much expected Cyberpunk 2077 video game, based on the tabletop game Cyberpunk 2020, which is 100% inspired by the vision of Blade Runner, is coming this December, we believe this is the perfect occasion to re-explore this world; the cinematic future that remains the daddy of most of the modern sci-fi masterpieces.
To fairly present our admiration of this universe, two critics will give their individual appreciation of the Blade Runner franchise and introduce their favourite among the two entries. I will explore Blade Runner (1982) by Sir Ridley Scott, including the multiple cuts that followed, but stay tuned later this month for Blade Runner 2049 (2017) by Denis Villeneuve, then let us know which is your favourite!
Let’s get in the story of the original for a bit! In 1982’s version of 2019 Los Angeles, Earth is a decadent and polluted place where it rains all the time and the cities are overpopulated. Mankind was able to achieve the ultimate dream of creating the perfect artificial intelligence (AI): cybernetic beings called Replicants. At least equal in intelligence, but superior in strength, Replicants were used for labour during the colonization of other planets and soon declared too dangerous after a mutiny off-world. Police headquarters rapidly unveiled the Blade Runner unit, specialized officers with the task to hunt down and kill, upon detection, any Replicants on Earth. Enters Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the Blade Runner, who must pursue and terminate four Replicants who stole a ship and have returned to Earth to find their creator: Dr. Tyrell.
The original Blade Runner remains one of my favourite movies, perhaps even my favourite movie of all time, certainly, for the effect it had on me early on as a movie fan. The very first time I saw this masterpiece, I was way too young…perhaps 6 or 7 years old. My father had the VHS of the 1992 Director’s Cut of the movie and I took it out of the pile because I recognized the actor who played Han Solo. Even though my English wasn’t top-notch at that time and I couldn’t understand much of it, the visuals and the ambiance stuck with me for a long time. I always remembered the beautiful nightmares that it gave me; a dark but strangely appealing city lit with huge billboards, a blond villain with blood all over his face and a female model crashing in walls of glass. Although we surely do not want such a dark dystopian future for our society, the cinematography and visual choices were beautiful enough to capture the imagination of the audience. This demonstrates how authentic and ahead of its time this movie was, especially for a kid like me who watched so many movies in his life.
I returned to it in 2007 when the Final Cut of the movie was released, allowing me to fully grasp the story and the philosophical phenomenon behind Ridley Scott’s vision. Is the future the perfect place we want it to be? According to this franchise, no…it won’t be. In fact, even though if you find a mish-mash of cultures, the supremacy of Japanese and Chinese marketing over America and the high authority of big corporations over the liberty of the masses.
Some of you might recall, but Blade Runner had a very poor audience reaction when it first came out (only $41,5 million USD, which is nothing for a film of this magnitude). People didn’t get it at the time and Ridley Scott had such a difficult time directing this movie. Curious enough, many movies plagued with production, budget and studio problems can sometimes become classics (we can only think of Apocalypse Now or Star Wars), this is certainly a good example. Poor Ridley, he has my eternal admiration in succeeding directing a movie where the two main actors hated each other (Harrison Ford and Sean Young had terrible chemistry), the crew hated working with Scott for poor working conditions and the filming was always in the dark and under the rain. Incredible delays took place during production, the studios required a lot of edits from the director and the money was draining quickly. During an interview, I remember Harrison Ford complaining that this shoot was “a bitch”. Despite all that, it achieved greatness after 25 years.
As it was the case of Stanley Kubrick’ The Shining back in 1980, Blade Runner was based on a science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, but took a different direction for the script to offer somewhat of an entirely original story. Writers Hampton Hancher and David Peoples made this as original as possible, while still respecting this existential question of the book: what makes us human? A question that too few movies explored before and paved the way for the future in movies and TV. In that regard, the movie leaves us with one of the biggest cliffhangers in the history of science-fiction, alongside Darth Vader’s revelation in The Empire Strikes Back (1980): is our main character human or a Replicant? To this day, even with a sequel, Scott entrusted us with this task to make our own opinion, leaving subtle clues everywhere in the film in the 2007 Final Cut. This is an intelligent philosophical manner to implicate the audience in the morale of the story and leave us questioning its meaning...one of the reasons I admire the movie so much.
After a first viewing, the most astonishing element for anyone remains the absolutely great cinematography from Jordan Cronenweth. The vision and the image at the forefront are unmistakable and referenced in so many individual works on the urban cities of the future. I’m not joking, these guys were probably Caravaggio’s of their time for being the first to master the art of Cyberpunk and dystopian sci-fi. Another great element that too few critics consider: the music! The original Vangelis soundtrack is such a wonder and mixes genres that work so well together (maybe except for Hans Zimmer or the late Johann Johanson). I never liked blues and the overuse of synthesizers before Blade Runner, this is saying much. The music is perhaps the main reason we care a little more about the romance between Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachel (Sean Young), which is a little wooden and forced. Inspired by Blues, Electronic music and pop, you get a mash-up that is both beautiful and new. Speaking of performances, I still think that the first movie, over the sequel, offered superior performances in terms of intensity, especially among its villains. Replicants Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) remain the best representations of human androids we’ve had so far…what great emotions and eccentricity!
Although I very much liked the very honourable sequel directed by Denis Villeneuve (still a personal favourite in the last 10 years), the original movie remains my favourite for its visually poetic and slow pace that inspired a whole generation of movies. After close to 40 years, this movie still doesn’t look dated; the colours remain lush and eye-popping. The misty and creepy streets of 2019 Los Angeles remain iconic in Hollywood history…and that was 1982.
Many cuts of the movie remain available, but I definitely recommend ‘The Final Cut’ above all else, simply because it is the definite vision that Ridley Scott had all along when some of the technological means were still lacking back in the 80s. He was able to resist the urge to insert CGI effects in the movie and keep genuine practical effects, and it still looks beautiful. The new version in HD is gorgeous and modern, give it a second try in 4K for an exceptional experience.