- Blade Runner (1982) movie review: After a slow start – disappointing box office figures, lukewarm reviews – Ridley Scott’s noirish sci-fier has become one of the best-known, most widely admired, and most extensively re-edited big-screen releases of the 20th century.
- Questions for the Ages: Does Blade Runner deserve all that acclaim and all that extra work in the editing room? And is Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard truly a Replicant?
- Blade Runner was shortlisted in two Academy Award categories: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Visual Effects.
Blade Runner movie review: Does Ridley Scott’s dystopian sci-fier/existential drama deserve its ‘great classic’ status?
Ridley Scott’s dystopian 1982 sci-fi drama Blade Runner is one of those Hollywood productions whose initially mixed reviews were actually closer to the mark than the decades of “hagiography” that followed.
Nearly twenty years ago, when I saw on VHS the Blade Runner cut as presented in its original theatrical release – the first of seven or so different versions – there was little that stuck with me about the film, save that it was at its worst a pretentious bore and at its best moderately interesting.
Adapted by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples from the equally so-so 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – a writer whose ideas for stories always outstripped his ability to render them into good prose – Blade Runner pales in comparison to Paul Verhoeven’s later Dick adaptation, Total Recall (1990), as well as to Scott’s prior sci-fi classic Alien (1979).
This Blade Runner movie review will chiefly discuss Scott’s 2007 DVD edition, “The Final Cut,” which follows along the same lines of the 1992 “Director’s Cut” (ironically, not done by Scott) while altering quite a few elements found in the 1982 original.
‘The Final Cut’ vs. original version
I should note that after watching Blade Runner “The Final Cut” I went back to my old videotape and rewatched the original, which is two or three minutes shorter than the final version’s 117 minutes.
I can thus state that The Final Cut improves a few elements – similar to the way George Lucas tweaked THX 1138 and Francis Ford Coppola added things to Apocalypse Now – while taking away more from the original than it adds, again proving that directors can make mistakes.
In fact, Scott’s removal of the Harrison Ford voice-over heard in the original version is a big blow to The Final Cut (which I’ll delve into later) because its loss removes narrative elements, including the humanization and complexity of Ford’s character, that do not exist elsewhere.
Additionally, in a playful manner the voice-over ties Blade Runner back to 1940s film noir, whereas the voice-overless final version makes it more grim and somber while turning Ford’s character into a far less appealing figure – especially considering that he doesn’t act with his face or body.
‘Emotionally castrated archetypes’
But the basic problem in all Blade Runner movie versions is that Ridley Scott does nothing to make the characters seem either realistic or empathetic, for they are all emotionally castrated archetypes, lacking believable human interactions.
Given the suffusion of technical detail on screen, ostensibly to add “realism” to the futuristic tale set in 2019, there can be no falling back upon the excuse that those are intentionally metaphoric characters whose portrayals was intentionally marionette-like, such as those in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse or Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.
Here is the nub of the problem with Blade Runner: Scott believes that depth of story and characterization come not from screen “moments” or by the way an actor makes a banal scene work, but by flooding the screen with details even if those are not particularly noteworthy.
A well-written film like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life will reveal little details in the background or feature moments between characters in “minor scenes” that in rewatch illuminate something to come. There is nothing of the sort in Blade Runner. Instead, the movie offers little trinkets that are simply meant to set technogeeks aflutter; one might spot an interesting neon sign or a silly-looking character, but nothing that adds to the film’s core.
But let me take a step back so I can provide a concise précis of Blade Runner, with the original elements noted when differing from The Final Cut.
Blade Runner movie synopsis
In 2019, androids called Replicants have rebelled at an outer-space colony, and laws back on Earth have made it legal for cops called Blade Runners to execute them on sight. A few are known to have made it to Los Angeles, which resembles a futuristic Tokyo and where an ex-Blade Runner named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is forced back into service after a fellow Blade Runner is killed by one of the rogue Replicants.
The killer Replicant seems intent on infiltrating the headquarters of the corporation that made him, possibly to force their creator, company founder and CEO Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), to extend the Replicants’ lives, which are pre-programmed to end after four years.
The Replicants that Deckard needs to kill are the rebel leader, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), in addition to Leon Kowalski (Brion James), Pris (Daryl Hannah), and an Amazon sex dancer named Zhora (Joanna Cassidy).
Deckard’s police partner is an oddball named Gaff (Edward James Olmos), whose main contribution to Blade Runner seems to be the addition of “color”: He speaks an Esperanto-inspired slang and leaves little origami figures wherever he goes. Gaff, in fact, is a perfect example of all that’s wrong with the film’s screenplay, for despite his quirks he is essentially a cipher. Again, pointless detail is just superfluousness, not depth.
Roy Batty soliloquy more effective in 1982 version
Eventually, Deckard goes himself to see Tyrell and meets the latest Replicant model, Rachael (Sean Young), who doesn’t realize what she is. (These have supposedly been outlawed, but let’s go with Blade Runner’s inconsistencies.) Meanwhile, Batty senses that his life is nearing its end.
After several encounters that leave lots of humans and Replicants dead, Deckard and Batty face off in a rooftop melee over L.A. But instead of a final battle, Deckard watches as Batty’s life fades away. Before his last breath, the Replicant utters a cringeworthy soliloquy:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. … Time to die.
Here is where the original Blade Runner works far better.
In The Final Cut, Batty’s soliloquy is left hanging, invoking not empathy but chuckles for the android who believes himself profound in its grasp of its plight. In the 1982 version, however, we immediately get Deckard’s voice-over, which, in its faux-1940s hardboiled style, leavens the soliloquy’s unintended humor with its own almost self-knowing silliness.
Far superior Au hazard Balthazar
Now, contrast the Replicant Roy Batty’s “striving for depth and empathy” soliloquy with a similar moment in a far superior – and far simpler – film, Robert Bresson’s 1966 drama Au hasard Balthazar, which follows the peregrinations of a rural donkey over a decade or so of its life till death.
Midway through Au hasard Balthazar there is a silent scene of sublime transcendence that says infinitely more about the human condition vis-à-vis the suffering it imparts to its subjugated non-human laborers – which is the stated reason for the Replicant rebellion.
That’s when the donkey Balthazar, after having been bought by a traveling circus, is led into a stable. The camera then intercuts shots of the eyes of the donkey with those of a handful of the circus’ other animals – a tiger, a monkey, and an elephant, among them. The result is a wordless, non-human conversation through which the other animals tell the donkey that they’ve seen worse than it has.
There is simply nothing in Blade Runner that approaches that moment.
Origami unicorn mystery
Blade Runner continues with Gaff finding Deckard and Batty. Gaff then refers to Rachael, who has improbably fallen in love with Deckard: “It’s too bad she won’t live; but then again, who does?”
Deckard returns to his apartment and finds Rachael sleeping. As they leave, with him fearing she might be targeted for retirement next, he sees an origami unicorn left by Gaff.
In The Final Cut, the unicorn refers to an earlier scene where Deckard dreams of the mythical animal. Fans claim this proves Deckard is a Replicant; else, how would Gaff know of Deckard’s dream unless he had knowledge that the unicorn had been implanted?
This makes little sense. There is no unicorn dream sequence in the original version; the origami unicorn is simply another self-important marker that Gaff had been there and had spared Rachael – not that he knows anything of depth regarding Deckard’s identity.
The Final Cut ends with Deckard holding the unicorn and entering an elevator with Rachael. In Blade Runner 1982, Deckard’s voice-over speaks of Gaff as he sees the unicorn. That is followed by scenes showing Deckard and Rachael driving in a pastoral countryside (reportedly outtakes from Stanley Kubrick’s opening shots for The Shining).
Is Deckard truly a Replicant?
Blade Runner fans – and many of them border on fetishism – insist “The Final Cut” is better because it implies Deckard is a Replicant.
Now, even if the original version didn’t make it clear Deckard is not a Replicant, who really cares? Harrison Ford’s Deckard is listless to the point that whether or not he is an android or just a malaise-ridden human seems of no great import.
And never mind that the unicorn sequence is rather superfluous – as it is just a dream. The fact that Gaff knows about it can be explained as something he recalled from conversations with Deckard that the latter simply forgot, as the film implies this is an important recurring symbol to the man and it is something he may likely have expounded upon to others. That’s also a very “human” thing to do, especially since Deckard is not a particularly reticent guy when in the company of his peers.
Moreover, there’s no explanation why a unicorn dream – and Gaff’s knowledge of it – would in any way imply Deckard’s synthetic reality. Are unicorns somehow a symbol of artificial life that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner lets us not know?
Another bandied-about claim is that Blade Runner is somehow “visionary.” That is based on the suffusion of details that fill the screen; in other words, all the techno stuff.
Yet this is standard fare in sci-fi films, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (whose special effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull, worked on Blade Runner), in addition to Michael Anderson’s similarly themed Logan’s Run (a goofier but much more enjoyable effort), George Lucas’ Star Wars, and Scott’s own Alien.
Among the aforementioned titles, only Metropolis and 2001 could be considered visionary – for their tales, not their technical wizardry. In fact, even Blade Runner’s most ardent supporters admit how much it stylistically leeches off of Metropolis, especially in regard to its vision of a future Los Angeles. Alien, for its part, certainly laid the visual template of a dark mechanistic future that Blade Runner exploits and that has led to what is known as cyber-punk.
In short, Blade Runner is a highly derivative effort –or the very antithesis of visionary.
‘Style over substance’
Summing up, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a barely watchable effort, mainly on the strength of its technical achievements. Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography, for instance, is remarkable, though, again, there is no “signature” visual moment that raises Blade Runner above dozens of other sci-fi movies.
Like its source novel, the film has a few good ideas, lots of bad ones, a muddled plot (especially in the later versions), leaden dialogue, and poor characterizations made all the worse by mediocre-to-bad acting, from the always overrated Harrison Ford and the abysmal Sean Young to the over-the-top Rutger Hauer, the lifeless Daryl Hannah (whose portrayal – along with Hauer’s – does nothing to engender sympathy for the Replicants), and the quirk-infested Edward James Olmos.
Add in the chemistry-less love story between Ford and Young and the far-too-long sequences designed to show off the visuals and inner workings of Tyrell’s corporation, and Blade Runner turns out to be a classic triumph of “style over substance.” Even that cliché grates, despite its aptness.
Not helping matters, Vangelis’ score, like all his film music, is overwrought and pretentious.
What is Blade Runner?
Ultimately, Blade Runner falls far short of its claimed greatness simply because it is never sure of what it wants to be – and that’s another strike against its “visionary” claims. It has too many feet on too many boats that diverge: Is it sci-fi? Is it existential? Is it film noir? Is it a character study?
Blade Runner has elements of all these and more, but not enough of any of them to make it work as a whole. In fact, the film’s chief failing on all scores is that Ridley Scott had no vision for the project, grafting elements from Alien and many of the other films mentioned in this commentary, trying to take what worked from each, thus ending up with a work that is a thematic mess – and a dull one, at that.
Sure, Blade Runner has plenty of visions, but no single vision; in its own myopia, Blade Runner’s dystopia founders. I doubt that any further recuts can cure that ill.
Blade Runner (1982)
Director: Ridley Scott.
Screenplay: Hampton Fancher & David Peoples.
From Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
Cast: Harrison Ford. Rutger Hauer. Sean Young. Daryl Hannah. Joanna Cassidy. Edward James Olmos. M. Emmet Walsh. Brion James. William Sanderson. Joe Turkel.
“Blade Runner Movie (1982) Review: Undeserved Classic Reputation” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Blade Runner Movie (1982) Review: Undeserved Classic Reputation” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Blade Runner Movie (1982) Review” endnotes
Hampton Fancher discusses Robert Mitchum as Rick Deckard (and mentions that Robert Mulligan was to have directed Blade Runner) in an Eye for Film interview with Anne-Katrin Titze.
Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, and Harrison Ford Blade Runner movie images: The Ladd Company | Warner Bros.
“Blade Runner Movie (1982) Review: Undeserved Classic Reputation” last updated in October 2021.