Blade Runner at 30: Celebrating Ridley Scott’s Dystopian Vision

12 minute read

On the closing day of the Cannes Film Festival in May 1982 I sat in a terrace restaurant with Steven Spielberg and Melissa Matheson, the director and writer of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which was to have its world premiere that night. I had just written a cover-length story for TIME on E.T., and in gratitude Spielberg had invited me to lunch. Sitting with Matheson was her beau, Harrison Ford, and we spent much of the afternoon discussing his new film, Blade Runner, which I had seen before leaving for Cannes and which would open June 25. Ford said he had enjoyed making the movie but was annoyed that he had to record a voiceover narration at the insistence of the producer, Bud Yorkin, who had also insisted the ending be changed. Even then, a month before its release, Blade Runner was awash in internecine controversy.

When the movie premiered, 30 years ago today, it received mixed reviews. Its star and director, Ridley Scott, were unhappy; and Philip K. Dick, the author of its source novel, had wildly conflicting feelings about the adaptation. The picture’s backers would consider it a flop — costing $30 million to produce, it earned just $27.6 million in its North American release.

But Blade Runner, the disputed child in a standard Hollywood custody case, would mature into one of the seminal artifacts and art works of science-fiction filmmaking. This film about the future found its salvation there. The movie has gone through more gestations than the monster in Scott’s Alien: a comic book, two video games, three sequels to the source novel and, of course, four increasingly refined versions of the film. Last year, Scott announced that he might make a sequel or prequel to Blade Runner.

Three decades after it opened, and seven years before the period in which it is set, we celebrate this important birthday by offering a few glimpses at what Blade Runner was and what it would become.

The Book

By 1980, Dick had been writing in the genre its adherents called SF (never, please, never sci-fi) for three decades. Many of his short stories and novels would be made into movies: “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” into Total Recall, “Second Variety” into Screamers, “Adjustment Team” into The Adjustment Bureau, plus Spielberg’s Minority Report, John Woo’s Paycheck and Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. But Blade Runner was the first, based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

A biographical sketch at the time proclaimed that Dick “considers his best work to be Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?… because it deals with the misfortunes of animals and imagines a society where a person’s dog or cat is worth more as a status symbol (and costs more) than a house or car.” Yet when Dick managed to get a Blade Runner script, he found that the animal motif was gone.

And what does that title mean? It came from a novel by Alan Nourse that William S. Burroughs had adapted as a screenplay in 1979. Scott and writers Hampton Fancher and David Peoples just appropriated the title for their Androids project.

(READ: Corliss on the life and art of Philip K. Dick)

Reading the Blade Runner script, Dick thought “it bore no relation to the book…. What my story will become is one titanic lurid collision of androids being blown up, androids killing humans, general confusion and murder, all very exciting to watch…. They’re not called movies for nothing. I have no complaints.” Dick had known the movie wouldn’t be “faithful” to the book when he discussed androids with Scott. To the author, they were inhuman, unhuman simulations of us; to the director they were supermen who couldn’t fly.

Then he saw part of the movie in post-production and was wowed by the density of the world Ridley Scott’s team had created. “You would literally have to go five times to see it before you could assimilate the information that is fired at you,” in said in an interview in late 1981. “The human brain craves stimulation. And this movie will stimulate the brain, the brain will not be lulled…. The book and the movie do not fight each other. They reinforce each other.”

We’ll never know what Dick would have thought of the first release version of Blade Runner. He died March 2, 1982, five days after suffering a stroke. He was 53.

The Movie as It Was in 1982

Here’s part of what I wrote in TIME when the film was released:

Says David Dryer, who helped supervise the special photographic effects of Blade Runner: “The environment in the film is almost a protagonist.” He and other talented craftsmen are lavishing their imaginations on graphic design—on high-tech spaceships and déjà vu futurism—and allowing the characters to wander through a labyrinthine narrative like lost dwarfs. Moviegoers seeking the smooth propulsion of story line look at these films and ask, “What’s going on here?” Directors and effects specialists, plumbing the resources of a technology that can show what has never been seen before, answer: “The here is what’s going on. The setting, the surroundings, the texture.”

In Blade Runner, the here is quite enough: a vision of dark, cramped, urban squalor. This is Los Angeles in the year 2019, when most of the earth’s inhabitants have colonized other planets, and only a polyglot refuse heap of humanity remains. Los Angeles is a Japanized nighttown of sleaze and silicon, fetid steam and perpetual rain. This baroque Tomorrowland juggles images from a dozen yesterdays: walk out of the rain and into a 1940s world of overhead fan blades and women in shoulder-pad jackets moving to the cadence of a keening alto sax. The filthy streets are clogged with Third World losers and carnivores, while 10 ft. above them the police cars hover, monitoring the future as it molders into chaos.

Some people don’t belong in this decaying cityscape. One is Deckard (Harrison Ford), a burnt-out, Bogie-style detective; the others are “replicants,” robots of advanced design who have infiltrated the city to find their creator and prolong their short, violent lives beyond the allotted four-year span. Deckard, brought back into service to kill the quartet of replicants, finds it no easy job—for they are powerful and cunning, and he is tired beyond caring. Moreover, Deckard’s emotions have been short-circuited from a lifetime of dirty police work, whereas the emotions of the replicant leader Batty (Rutger Hauer) are flowering just as his “termination date” nears. And so the twin pursuits begin. Deckard, a man from the past, races against time to track down his quarry; Batty, the man of the future, races for as much time as genetic engineering and his appetite for life will grant him.

Blade Runner, like its setting, is a beautiful, deadly organism that devours life; and Ford, the cockily engaging Star Warrior of Raiders of the Lost Ark, allows his heroic stature to shrivel inside it. In comparison, Hauer’s silver-haired superman is more human than human, and finally more complex than Ford’s victimized flatfoot. Because of this imbalance of star roles, and because this drastically recut movie has a plot that proceeds by fits and stops, Blade Runner is likely to disappoint moviegoers hoping for sleek thrills and derring-do. But as a display terminal for the wizardry of Designers Lawrence G. Paull, Douglas Trumbull and Syd Mead, the movie delivers. The pleasures of texture have rarely been so savory.

The Making of Blade Runner

In Charles de Lauzirika’s feature-length making-of doc in the 2007 four-disc Blade Runner DVD pack, Fancher explains that his script was a kind of closet drama, with most of the scenes taking place within 1940s-style interiors. Scott kept asking, “What’s outside the window? There’s a world.” Fancher’s response: “F— the world.” Since Scott’s main interest was in creating that world, he looked to designer Paull and the art department for backup. And when Fancher was slow in producing rewrites (“They used to call me Happen Faster,” he says), Deeley hired Peoples, who hadn’t read the original novel.

Fancher had written the Deckard character for Robert Mitchum, a noir star then in his 60s. The producers considered nearly every leading man of the day: Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Peter Falk, Al Pacino, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds. They wasted months detoured on Dustin Hoffman. Somebody floated Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name, and this was before he’d made his first hit, Conan the Barbarian. Then Scott and Deeley saw rushes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and they had their star.

Scott cast Hauer as the android Roy Batty after he was shown the actor’s early Dutch films. He tested several ingenues for the replicant Rachael and gave the role to Sean Young — “So perfectly right,” says Deeley. “She could be an android. She may be an android, for all I know.” Daryl Hannah, another cute kid without much screen experience, stuck on a blond punk wig, “puttied out my eyes” after seeing Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu and became the replicant Pris. Joanna Cassidy, one of the great underused beauties in movies of the time, was perfect as the snake lady. She was 62 when interviewed in 2007, and still looked gorgeous.

The visual team of Blade Runner — one of the last big fantasy movies to be made without much computer graphics finery — worked directly for Scott, who sketched each of his prolific ideas on paper (they were called “Ridley-grams”). He plundered the imagination of “futurist” Syd Mead and stole from the work of the French artist Mobius (Jean Giraud) in Heavy Metal magazine. Production illustrator Tom Southwell saw a Japanese ideogram he liked and placed it in the window of the noodle shop. He found out it meant “origin” — the theme, the big question of the film. Effects wizard Douglas Trumbull borrowed the explosions in the first shots of Blade Runner from effects he had created for (but were not used in) Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point more than a decade earlier. The top of the police building was a redesign of the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Moral: Never throw anything away.

When Scott looked at the first four-hour rough cut, he told his editor, “I think it’s marvelous. But what the f— does it mean?” Fancher’s take was less querulous: “You’ve ruined it,” he said to Scott. The film’s financial backers, Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio, weren’t crazy about it either. It was they who ordered up the voice-over narration (which Fancher had used in an early draft). Paul Sammon, one of several Blade Runner-ologists to speak in the 2007 doc, blamed the flop on E.T., which he called “happy comfort food” and which, by its extraordinary success, pushed out all darker science-fiction visions. A young director, Joseph Kahn (Torque), blamed it on Reagan. Yeah, well. In fact, Blade Runner was one of several dystopian science-fiction films to tank in the early and middle ’80s. Tron, The Dark Crystal, The Keep, Labyrinth: none found a large audience.

All the Other Blade Runners

The 2007 four-disc box set has four versions of the film: the original U.S. release; a slightly different version shown abroad; Scott’s 1997 recut of the movie (with the narration removed); and his latest, absolutely-final-for-now superduper director’s cut of the director’s cut. Scott did the commentary on one track; the writers and producers on a second; the designers and effects technicians on a third. The package also has enough exegesis — six hours of making-of docs! — to fill a Blade Runner doctoral dissertation, of which I’ll warrant there’ve already been several. A recluse could spend the years from now to 2019 immersed in this verbiage and visuage.

On the writers’ track, you’ll find Fancher and Peoples disagreeing about almost everything, as writers will, including the pronunciation of Chateau Marmont, the hotel where Fancher lived at the time. They also tangle over the best lines in the film: Each attributes them to the other writer. But it seems beyond dispute that Fancher came up with the noir angle; he also gave the movie a good title, Mechanismo, which producer Michael Deeley junked for Dangerous Days. (Not Dangerous Nights? Practically the whole movie takes place after dark.) And it was Peoples who, in a conversation with his daughter, came up with a classier word for the movie’s androids: replicants. People later wrote the 1998 film Soldier, which he described as a “sidequel” to Blade Runner: inspired by but independent of it.

Blade Runner, whose original version had a happy ending imposed on it, had a happy ending as a project. It became one of the most revered and influential fantasy films of its time (tied with Alien). New technology — video players, with their pause and slo-mo buttons — brought new fans. Sammon: “When they could actually manipulate the film, just as Deckard manipulates Roy Batty’s photograph, then they suddenly realized what an accomplishment it was.” Viewers were finally ready to savor the pleasures of texture.

Three decades after that Cannes conversation with Harrison Ford, I can finally imagine a smile on his stern face. And now, Mr. Scott, could we please see the Blade Runner sequel-prequel? And, for an extra 30th-anniversary treat, the four-hour rough cut of the original film? It’s got to be somewhere.

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