How do you tell apart a person from an android? In the world of Blade Runner, this is the question put to special detectives (‘blade runners’) whose profession is to hunt down and kill ‘replicants’ (the name for the organically-composed androids in the film).
There are two key ways of identifying a replicant. The first is a lengthy process known as the ‘Voigt-Kampff test’, in which the subject is asked a series of moral questions whilst a machine monitors the eye for any uncharacteristic movements. The second is far more simple: to wait four years, after which the four-year lifespan with which replicants are made will expire, and they will drop down dead.
Similar methods prove useful when critically evaluating sci-fi films: you can laboriously scrutinise every last one, sorting good from bad, or you can just wait four years to see which films survive in the public consciousness. Looking back four years, we are able to distinguish the good films (Under the Skin, Gravity) from the replicants (Oblivion, Ender’s Game, After Earth, The Zero Theorem and many many more).
In 1982, Blade Runner looked certain to fail this four-year test. It had a famously volatile production, which included changes in director and studio, extensive rewrites, and an exhausting shoot that went way over budget – not to mention the personal interventions of writer Philip K Dick (whose book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was the inspiration for the film). From there things only got worse; it polarised critics and was a financial flop upon release. Commercial audiences were also left cold, presumably confused by the expectation of going to see Harrison Ford’s sci-fi follow up to Star Wars, only to be greeted by a bleak art film. So how and why is Blade Runner now one of the most highly regarded films of all time?
The popular theory is that Blade Runner was saved by home video. The thriving VHS market gave new audiences a chance to watch the film, and what they discovered was a film that demanded to be watched again and again; Blade Runner’s philosophical questions and incredibly dense visuals engrossed viewers. It wasn’t perfect – the theatrical cut still featured the hammy narration and cheesy Hollywood ending that later editions of the film would remove – but it was apparent that Blade Runner was more than had initially met the eye.
Eyes are a recurring motif in Blade Runner; a film that is often about the importance of vision. It’s especially appropriate considering the fact that audiences’ enjoyment of the film have an inevitable element of pure aesthetic appreciation. With its futuristic, neon-lit urban setting, the film was a key influence on the ‘cyberpunk’ subgenre (along with Tron and Videodrome, both released the same year). In many ways, the lasting success of Blade Runner is owing to this outstanding world – the Los Angeles of 2019. The city has been ‘retrofitted’, a practice that involves the fusion of old and new architectural styles; the fashion is diverse, strange and strangely plausible; and the practical effects are some of the best ever committed to celluloid. All of this is captured by Jordan Cronenweth’s mesmerising cinematography, which transforms the vibrant metropolis into a film noir nightmare.
Ford is at his best as Blade Runner Rick Deckard, but it is Rutger Hauer’s timeless performance as the replicant Roy Batty that steals the show. His character is at once made terrifying, charming and, crucially, sympathetic. It is through Batty’s final, tragic monologue, in which his memories are “lost in time, like tears in rain”, that Blade Runner’s eternal appeal becomes apparent: this is a deeply human film. The cheesy happy ending, in which the replicant Rachel’s lifespan is revealed to be normal, may have been removed from subsequent cuts, but Blade Runner shared Rachel’s fate: ‘special – no termination date’.
Image: Shannon Hayward