By Nathan Anderson & Neal Anderson
Few films can brag of having as much creative influence as Ridley Scott’s 1982 Cult masterpiece, Blade Runner, a film renowned for its impeccable production design, dazzling special effects, dreamy score, intriguing and morally complex themes, subversive characters, and for bringing a sense of maturity and sophistication to a Genre.
Prior to Blade Runner, aside from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, rich deeply layered themes in American science fiction films were elusive, due to the genre’s b-movie trappings and the success of films like 1977’s Star Wars being attributed to their extremely wide and generally non-challenging appeal.
While Blade Runner is rather unanimously celebrated today, its initial run in theatres was more than disappointing, going so far as to be labeled as a box office bomb, and garnering some very mixed reception from critics and audiences alike. However, it is reasonable to ascertain that, regardless of how one responded to the movie, it is impossible to deny its enigmatic quality, one that has firmly entrenched the film as a timeless piece of art and one that has had a very lasting impact on fiction of all mediums.
Despite the film’s cultural significance, its origins aren’t terribly well known, aside from being based, rather loosely, on a novel written by Phillip K. Dick entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
This story was one of many influential stories written during the New Wave Science Fiction movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, spearheaded by writers like Dick, Roger Zelazny, J.G. Ballard, Phillip Jose Farmer and Harlan Ellison.
Rather than writing with a philosophical angle like Isaac Asimov, these writers concerned themselves with societal commentary and examined issues of drug culture, dependence of technology, war, capitalism, and the sexual revolution all wrapped up in a counter-culture veneer that rejected the ideas of utopian science fiction. These writers would form the main inspiration and roots for what eventually become the sub-genre called ‘Cyberpunk’, a genre dominated by authors such as William Gibson (Neuromancer) Bruce Sterling (Mirrorshades) and Pat Cadigan (Synners).
While Phillip K. Dick’s novel serving as the loose basis for Blade Runner is well known, its intense and iconic visual style can be traced back to comics, specifically a comic from Dan O’Bannon, the writer behind Scott’s previous film, the cold, terrifying, and equally monumental Alien.
O’Bannon, long time science fiction and EC comic geek and creative jack of all trades, got his first break when he met director John Carpenter (The Thing, Halloween) while attending the University of Southern California film school.
The film they collaborated on was 1974’s Dark Star, a science fiction comedy done on a shoestring budget, with John Carpenter in the director’s chair and O’Bannon serving as editor, production designer, and visual effect supervisor, as well as acting as one of the lead characters.
Despite having a very limited release, Dark Star went on to become an indie cult classic, and Dan O’Bannon’s visual effects caught the attention of the Chilean surrealist director, Alejandro Jodorowsky, an eccentric and controversial artist who was seeking to adapt Frank Herbert’s 1965 sprawling science fiction epic Dune to the big screen.
It was on this infamously ill-fated Dune production that O’Bannon met the French comic artist and future Alien collaborator, Jean Giraud, an artist best known under his pseudonym, Moebius.
Moebius is one of France’s most celebrated artists, a man known for his wildly imaginative and dreamlike drawings, fantastical worlds, vibrant colors and elegant linework – one who’s reverence is indicative of comics being treated as a serious art form rather than pulpy escapist entertainment.
Dune’s prolonged and troubled production led to many months of waiting and tedious anticipation by O’Bannon, who used the time to write and draw comics. There was one story that Moebius particularly liked and offered to draw again in his own trademark style, and the result was The Long Tomorrow, a science-fiction tale steeped in distinct film noir and hardboiled crime traditions, set against the backdrop of monolithic skyscrapers and living complexes, flying automobiles and intensely congested overpopulation.
The story was published in the influential French comic magazine Metal Hurlant in 1976 and its arguably more famous American counterpart Heavy Metal in 1977, and is considered to be one of the first true examples of pure Cyberpunk.
Jodorowsky’s Dune eventually halted production and O’Bannon fell into depression, packed up his bags and moved back to the states. Desperate to write a hit movie script, Dan began working on Star Beast, a script that, through many rewrites and revisions and with heavy input from roommate and fellow writer Ron Shusset, evolved into Alien. The script was shopped around and eventually landed at 20th Century Fox, who first optioned director Walter Hill to direct with his new company Brandywine Productions.
Hill signed on as producer, instead. Impressed by Ridley Scott’s feature directorial debut ‘The Duellists’, Hill asked Scott to direct Alien, an offer that was quickly accepted. Alien’s near universal acclaim, sophisticated visuals and mature approach solidified Scott as a force to be reckoned with, and studios were quick to let him tackle high-concept pictures.
Blade Runner was arguably the first film to convincingly bring life to a dystopian cyberpunk world. While Cyberpunk has been wrongly distilled down to some consistent surface level visual aesthetics – sunglasses, leather coats, neon signs and brightly lit computers – the true essence of cyberpunk explores civilizations that no longer exist under normal government control, but rather under the control of mega corporations that are more often than not selling some form of technology that the population at large is hugely dependent on; often dealing with anarchic misfit anti-heroes who willingly, or more often unwillingly, become part of a counter movement to bring these power structures down.
Right from opening shots of Blade Runner, these cyberpunk ideals are conveyed through incredibly detailed and descriptive visuals – flame belching monolithic skyscrapers blocking out the sun and the heavy pollution they produce enveloping the city in a thick shroud of dark fog. The only sights that manage to pierce the oppressive smog are the neon signs advertising the products these companies sell. Meanwhile, the only traditional form of governing that seems to have survived in this depressingly possible future is the police, and even then, it is depicted as a tired and barely operational force that only seem to operate at the service of the same mega corporations.
Harrison Ford’s Deckard is a rather inept character, whose lack of personality is a product of the claustrophobic and hopeless conditions of the world in which he lives (in direct correspondence to the film’s heavy themes of identity), a world where the natural and artificial are increasingly hard to differentiate, and one that has robbed him of the will to truly live.
Deckard is heavily contrasted by the antagonistic fugitive Replicant Roy Batty, an android who, despite his very limited lifespan, has lived a life much more exciting and fulfilling than Deckard’s and passionately fights forward simply fueled by the desire to live.
The dichotomy between these two characters presents an interesting and subversive role-reversal where the android has clearly lived beyond his robotic constraints and is easily the most human character in the film; one who our sympathies ultimately fall upon, while Deckard is a shell of a man, stripped of any charm, will or distinct personality traits.
These themes of what it means to be human, how it relates to technology, and the relationship between creator and creation are topics Ridley Scott would explore again in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant and are clearly the main driving force behind Blade Runner’s narrative.
Since 1982, Blade Runner has been an incredibly profound source of inspiration to many films and other works of fiction; whether it be science fiction action fare like The Fifth Element or, more notably, The Matrix; thought provoking dystopian cyberpunk epics such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell or Twelve Monkeys; or poignant, somber and underplayed science fiction such as Children of Men.
Blade Runner’s enthralling visuals and world building, brought to life by landmark Special Effects innovator Doug Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tree of Life) and conceptualized by visual futurist Syd Mead, brought a sense of tangibility to fictional worlds that has served as inspiration to countless TV shows, movies, books, video games and board games, whether or not it pertained to the science fiction genre.
Blade Runner’s dreamy score by Greek electronic musician Vangelis proved to be one of the most memorable aspects of the film, and it’s worth noting that the film’s dialogue and score have been sampled in music more than any other film made in the 20th century.
Lastly, despite its disappointing initial run in theatres, the film has gone on to land on many lists put out by several different respected publications and associations that celebrate the best films ever made, or the greatest science fiction films ever made. It was selected by the National Film Registry to be preserved due to its cultural, historic, and aesthetical significance in 1993.
BLADE RUNNER 2049
Blade Runner, unlike Alien, did not turn into a franchise, nor did it drag along all the baggage that comes with being such; no merchandising, no sub-par sequels, and free from the shackles of pop-culture saturation – it was a film with an untarnished and well respected reputation, and though the idea of a sequel had been optioned and shot down several times before, when the newest iteration of the project actually began production, fans of the original were naturally and understandably skeptical.
Harrison Ford was set to return as Deckard. Initial thoughts were not all positive, with the biggest concern being that the film would be reduced to a property that fell prey to the nostalgia boom; a trend popularized by constant reunion films, blatant homages, belated reboots and sequels to cult properties. Ridley Scott was rumored to come back as director, but with his recent, yet insipid return to the genre he helped redefine, the consensus was largely lukewarm at best. A silver lining appeared when the director was finally revealed as one that was gaining some momentum, Denis Villeneuve.
Known primarily in his native Canada, Villeneuve was relatively unknown in the states, but had proven his directorial prowess with a slew of critical hits such as Sicario, Prisoners, and Incendies, while pictures like the high-concept thriller, Enemy and more recently, the award-winning Arrival, displayed that he could tackle the genre of Science Fiction with maturity, tact and edge. To come full circle, Villeneuve is being tapped to spearhead a new adaptation of Dune more than 30 years after David Lynch’s attempt in 1984.
Blade Runner 2049 not only manages to capture the spirit of the 1982 classic and contains some cleverly integrated callbacks, but also thrives on its own distinct identity. In fact, 2049 presents a lot of contrast with its predecessor; as opposed to the heavily congested, smog-covered LA streets, 2049’s LA is eerily desolate and barren, indicating a widespread disease or famine- qualities that are beautifully and impeccably captured by the masterful cinematography of Roger Deakins.
The world is shown to not be kind to women, who are more often than not robbed of their own agency, brutalized and put on display. But, instead of merely pointing this out as societal commentary, the female characters make the most pivotal decisions in the narrative and are the ones actually capable of creation in the midst of all the oppressive nothingness and destruction.
In essence, the women in the film’s vision of future are the future.
Many shortcomings viewers found with the original have been disposed of; principal characters are shown to have more personality and sympathetic qualities – Ryan Gosling’s character is detached like Deckard, but for more plausible reasons, and ultimately goes through a very satisfying arc- the hard-boiled detective elements are played up in a much more gripping and mysterious way and the personal and/or romantic relationships between said characters are more genuine and truly felt, rather than perfunctory and cold. In short, the film does an excellent job of making a story centered on synthetic beings feel incredibly humanistic and poignant.
This is not to say that the sequel is superior to the original, as the original’s robotic and detached nature added much to the enigmatic and surreal quality of that world, which helped single out Roy Batty as the shining star of the film.
But, 2049 is arguably more conventional and consequently more understandable. It is cohesive and relatable, without sacrificing any conceptual edge or thought-provoking material that makes it so endlessly fascinating. The film’s reception was overwhelmingly positive and has been deemed one of the best sequels ever made by those who ventured out to see it.
If there is something else the sequel shares with the original, it’s the less-than-stellar box office return. Despite this, however, and considering that history often repeats itself, Blade Runner 2049 is on track to become a modern cult classic.