Blade Runner (United States, 1982)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Spoiler Alert: This review freely discusses elements from throughout the movie's plot. Those who have not seen the movie and don't want to know about things in advance are encouraged to return after having seen the film.

In the nearly 25 years since its original release, Blade Runner has become one of the most discussed, debated, and influential science fiction movies. These days, it's almost impossible to find a gritty science fiction motion picture that doesn't owe at least a small debt to Blade Runner's visual style. The movie is also one of the first major motion pictures to have been given a red carpet "Director's Edition." In cooperation with Warner Brothers, Ridley Scott re-tooled the movie, making minor changes and eliminating the much-maligned voiceover. In late 1992, the new version was released in a limited number of theaters and was universally acclaimed as the "definitive version" by fans worldwide.

Considering how respected Blade Runner is in the 2000s, it's difficult to remember that it was widely viewed as a failure during its initial release. Reviews, for the most part, were negative. (This isn't surprising. Cutting-edge science fiction is often viewed negatively at first then re-evaluated later. 2001 is a classic example.) The box office was tepid, and the film failed to make back its production costs. Viewers, expecting something more popcorn-oriented from a Harrison Ford science fiction movie, were disappointed by the dark, serious nature of the project. The cast and crew, who had nearly rebelled against the director during production, were in some cases unenthusiastic in their support of the finished product.

It's 2019 and the world has changed. Technology has give mankind access to the stars, but there are bigger issues here on Earth. Replicants - synthetic creations that so closely resemble human beings as to be almost undetectable - are not allowed on the home world. They are for space exploration only. Yet a group of the most advanced replicants have returned to Earth in a stolen spacecraft. There are four of them: two males - Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Leon Kowalski (Brion James) - and two females - Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). They are at loose and considered dangerous. Their leader, Roy, has one goal: to prolong his life. As a safety device, replicants are created with a limited four year life span. After that, they expire. Roy wants to live as long as any human.

Blade runners are the bounty hunters employed to track down and "retire" replicants who violate the law and come to Earth. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) was one of the best, but he's out of the business. However, once a blade runner, always a blade runner, and when his former boss, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) calls, Deckard has no choice but to agree to do one more job. His first step in tracking down the four replicant killers is to stop at the place where they were created, Tyrell Industries. There, Deckard encounters Rachael (Sean Young), a new kind of replicant so nearly perfect that even Deckard isn't sure at first. Rachael becomes an unexpected ally in Deckard's quest to find Roy, Leon, Pris, and Zhora, but when Bryant learns she's on the loose, he orders the blade runner to retire her, as well.

The central ethical question posed by Blade Runner has been popular in science fiction since it’s the inception of the genre: what is life? It's the same issue pondered by Mary Shelly in Frankenstein, translated into the far future. Man is no longer building misshapen creatures out of disused body parts. Now the creatures are nearly perfect replicas of human beings. They live, eat, drink, make love, think, feel, and perish. But do they have souls? Is Deckard merely consigning scrap to the slag heap or is he killing? That question has worn on him. According to Bryant, he's the best there ever was, but that was in the past. Now, he's burned out.

Blade Runner is as much of a morality play as it is an action/adventure story. The question of whether or not the replicants are "alive" echoes themes from countless novels, movies, and television series. It lies at the heart of Issac Asimov's I, Robot (both the book and the movie). It's central to the premise of the current TV series Battlestar Galactica (which borrows Blade Runner's "skinjob" slang to describe human-looking androids). Blade Runner didn't invent the issue but it arguably did more to popularize it than any other post-Asimov source.

Those expecting to see Harrison Ford in full Han Solo/Indiana Jones action hero mode are primed for disappointment. Deckard is still capable of getting the job done, but he's not gung-ho about it. He's a reluctant cop, and his reluctance becomes more apparent as the movie unfolds. He's also not the blade runner he used to be. He does the job, but gets the hell kicked out of him on several occasions and, without Rachael's timely intervention when he confronts Leon, he wouldn't be around to chase Pris and Roy.

The final confrontation between Deckard and Roy is atypical of an action movie. The formula requires that these two engage in a long, hard one-on-one struggle before Deckard vanquishes Roy. That's not what happens. The fight occurs, but Deckard is the loser. Roy saves him, even though he has every reason to let Deckard die. The two end up spending Roy's last hours together, waiting for his four-year life to end. Why does Roy save Deckard? Perhaps, recognizing that the end is at hand, Roy doesn't want to die alone. His companions are no more; Deckard is the only one who will stay with him. This action, more than any other, argues for the "humanity" of the replicants. What could be more human than to not want to die alone?

Blade Runner is not known for action set pieces. There are four, each associated with the death of a replicant. The most exaggerated are the conflicts between Deckard and Pris and Deckard and Roy, but there's nothing in either to match the elaborate workings of Ford's previous movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Blade Runner delivers its share of tension and suspense, but Ridley Scott's intention with this film was to make something worth thinking about not just a mindless jolt of adrenaline.

The movie is loosely based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, and it represents the first time any of the prolific science fiction author's works was adapted for a motion picture. Reportedly, Dick was pleased with the result even though Blade Runner diverged considerably from his story. What most impressed Dick was the look of the film and that has become Blade Runner's legacy. The mixture of high technology (air cars) and poverty (fires in trash cans) results in indelible images. Blade Runner takes place in darkness and rain. The film noir influences are evident, but so are the science fictions ones. Scott's ability to fuse these two has created a blueprint that dozens of other "serious" science fiction films have followed. The Blade Runner look is in direct contrast to the antiseptic appearance of Star Wars and Star Trek, the reigning science fiction poster franchises of the day. (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released three weeks prior to Blade Runner in 1982.)

One production aspect that dates Blade Runner is the electronic score by Vangelis. The music is haunting and appropriate, but it pins the movie to the 1980s. That was the time when composers on all levels were toying with electronic scores, and no one was bigger in this arena than Vangelis. However, although proponents of the electronic score believed the traditional orchestral version was a dying breed, that proved not to be the case. By the end of the decade, the electronic score had withered. Vangelis, who won an Oscar for Chariots of Fire, found jobs to be few and far between once the '80s had passed.

Blade Runner is not flawless. There is an irritating continuity error pertaining to the number of replicants who made it to Earth. (The original number is six, with one killed. However, Deckard is given only four profiles to track down.) The love story with Rachael doesn't work, in large part because both Ford and Sean Young underplay their roles to such extremes that its impossible to believe either could feel anything for the other. The romance is necessary to the story and it emphasizes the blurred line between men and replicants but it fails on an emotional level.

Blade Runner was the first of several projects designed to re-make Ford's image (not that he ever turned his back on blockbuster fare). It wasn't as successful as Witness, nor is his performance as effective as in that film, but Blade Runner established Ford as having more dramatic heft than many of his Star Wars co-stars. Sean Young isn't very good, but Rutger Hauer (headed for typecasting as a heavy) and Daryl Hannah (two years away from making a Splash) are. Both radiate danger while maintaining a curious childlike air. Their characters seem alive and human; Young's Rachael is cold and robotic. (There is an argument that, because she's playing a replicant, Young's restrained portrayal works. I don't accept it. Rachael is supposed to be almost perfectly human - good enough to nearly fool an expert. In my view, this is a poor performance by an actress who lacks a sterling reputation as a thespian.) Brion James and Joanna Cassidy play the other two replicants, and Edward James Olmos has a supporting role as Bryant's sinister henchman, Gaff.

While the director's cut removes the unfortunate voiceover from the original and eliminates the sappy happy ending, it also raises a question that has divided fans: Is Deckard a replicant? The answer appears to be yes, and Scott has subsequently confirmed this. The evidence is brief but seemingly conclusive. Deckard dreams of a unicorn. Later, he finds an origami image of the animal created by Gaff. This is viewed as proof that someone knows about Deckard's dreams and memories, meaning they are implanted, not real. Only special replicants have implanted memories. It makes sense, but there are those who don't buy it, including Harrison Ford. Ultimately, the determination of who and what Deckard is must be left to the individual viewer.

Blade Runner is a rare science fiction movie so full of material that pages can be written about it without scratching the surface. A review like this can provide little more than an overview. A detailed exploration of the movie, its style, and its mysteries requires dedication that only someone immersed in Blade Runner lore can provide. Currently, the film is available in the United States only in the director's cut. Warner Brothers, however, has promised an exhaustive box set next year with multiple versions. It will be interesting to see whether those editions offer new insights or expand upon the film's already rich tapestry.

Blade Runner (United States, 1982)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 1982-06-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1