Many films which end up on ‘best ever’ lists are rarely watched. I suspect all those old Expressionist films, or jerky, quirky French New Wave classics, or just about everything made in Scandinavia, are rarely enjoyed outside of a classroom. But other films are watched repeatedly, obsessively, and loved. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), I’d guess, falls into this category. Apart from being much-loved, it joins a group of films – Citizen Kane, The Shining, Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Alien, Stalker, and so on – which lend themselves to endless discussion and debate about the director’s intended meaning. Sci-fi of the more thoughtful sort (so, not Gravity, for example) is prone to provoking this sort of chin-stroking, and Blade Runner rewards such investigation as much as any of the others.
The first thing viewers will notice is the aesthetic; the film takes place in a city which is (or was) a mix of neon future and hellish present, and where it is apparently always dark. The first views of the city in Blade Runner are very similar to the opening of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis; the similarity is such that we know we are in a similar place in every way; oppressive, dark, inhuman, all straight lines and hard angles, a city where humans are dwarfed and insignificant. (Roger Ebert writes, “Unimaginable skyscrapers tower over streets that are clotted with humanity; around the skirts of the billion-dollar towers, the city at ground level looks like a third-world bazaar.”)
We are in a noir world. And so, we expect to see the stock noir characters. The Blade Runner himself, Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, appears early on, and he’s about as hard-boiled as it’s possible to be. He looks the part, shambling along in the half-light in his trench-coat. He acts the part too, moodily ordering noodles and (unsuccessfully) resisting authority in the form of the boss who wants him to track down some renegade replicants. His role as the hard-boiled detective is made very obvious by the extremely stylised, over-written voiceover Harrison Ford had to record for an early version of the film (the studios were worried that audiences would not understand the film.) Overwritten dialogue and expository voiceovers are very familiar to noir fans, and the addition of this one seems to confirm that Ridley Scott and the studio bosses were thinking in terms of film noir when the film was made. (It’s pure noir: “They don’t advertise for killers in a newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-cop, ex-Blade Runner, ex-killer.”)
As part of his assignment, Deckard has to visit the shadowy Tyrell corporation and there he meets Rachel, played by Sean Young. Wreathed in smoke, confident, beautiful, she’s our femme fatale.
There’s more to noir than the aesthetic, though. Critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton (1955, A Panorama of American Film Noir) offered a definition of the feel, the soul of noir as ‘…oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel…’ Does Blade Runner fit with any part of that? Well, there’s certainly romantic or erotic motivation; apart from Pris, the ‘basic pleasure model’ replicant who flirts her way into the Tyrell corporation, thee’s the relationship between Deckard and Rachel. (If the film has a fault, it’s this wholly unbelievable relationship: James Berardinelli writes, “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.”) Despite the clumsiness of the relationship (mostly Sean Young’s fault – she acts as though she actually is a robot) their relationship does contribute to the noir feeling; it’s desperate, unlikely and probably doomed. They are often shot like this, surrounded by bars of light; very recognizable from earlier noir films, it suggests how constrained and trapped they are.
What about the rest of that definition? There is plenty of cruelty in the film, especially in the so-called Final Cut (there are many versions of the film, and they are significantly different) – we see broken fingers, eyeballs being driven into brains, women shot in cold blood. People are killed for no particular reason – it’s a cruel, dark world. And ambivalence? In noir, we look at the main character to embody this. Deckard is every inch the anti-hero; he is not a particularly good, or brave, or tough man – the replicants have him well beaten on a number of occasions – but he is the closest thing to a hero this world can offer.
The narrative Deckard finds himself trapped in is familiar from noir also. He barely understands what is going on, and he is entirely alone in trying to figure it out. Eventually, he realises how dark and corrupt the institutions of society are; that the good guys are not so good and the bad guys are victims. That ambiguity identified by Borde and Chaumeton goes deeper than characterisation; it infuses the entire world. Mark. T. Conard sees this confusion between good and evil, or the complete lack of such distinctions, as reflective of increasing secularity in post-World War 2 society. There are no reliable police, or any forces for good in the noir world, no heroes, just as there is, for increasing numbers of people, no God to be found in the modern world.
Of course, the film can also be approached not only as neo-noir, but also as one of the best sci-fi films ever. Thematically, it reaches back to one of the foundational texts of the genre; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from 1818. The story – a mad scientist creating life, then struggling to manage the consequences – is the same. The central theme, likewise – when does artificially-created life become ‘human’ – remains of interest to an audience today. (See Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, or Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie, or Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron… basically, any story where life is created and then becomes confusingly human.) Blade Runner’s theme is not new, then (although, as James Sey notes, Ridley Scott delivers these old ideas well: ‘The film’s main theme is brilliantly realised.’) It is something else than the theme which makes it so persistently a part of modern culture.
Ultimately, what makes Blade Runner so influential is the synthesis of sci-fi themes with neo-noir characters, aesthetics and narratives. Gerard R. Lucas sees it as part of the sci-fi subgenere cyberpunk (“The world of Blade Runner is post-apocalyptic … human progress has become like a virus for planet Earth. Humanity is dense and dirty on the streets, and represents a mélange of cultures all boiling together in a stew of languages, cultures, styles, tech, and vices. It’s now a wasteland dominated by industry, vague cityscapes supported by crumbling technologies.”) As such, more modern cyberpunk films owe it a huge debt. It’s hard to imagine The Matrix or Ghost in the Shell without Blade Runner. Rupert Sanders’ 2016 remake of Ghost in the Shell is particularly obviously influenced.
So, Blade Runner gave us cyberpunk. More than that, though, the recent crop of dystopian sci-fi films (Hunger Games, Divergence and so on) all seem to borrow the fundamental binary opposition from Blade Runner, that between the individual and the huge corporations which increasingly seem to control our world. The Tyrell Corporation operates, it seems, above the law and without moral restraint; this is a very common representation of corporate behaviour in dystopian sci-fi.
Blade Runner is hugely influential – its aesthetic, its genre hybridity, its representations have all shaped contemporary sci-fi film. (And computer games.) It looks so familiar now, because it has been so influential, that is hard to understand how groundbreaking it was at the time. Berardinelli, again, points out that it was extremely unsuccessful on release and sees this as evidence of its originality: “Cutting-edge science fiction is often viewed negatively at first then re-evaluated later.” Certainly, thirty-five years later, as it receives its first sequel, its greatness and influence is no longer doubted at all.