The rerelease of ‘the final cut’ of Blade Runner charted in the UK top ten last weekend; not many 33 year old films do that; although this cut is only eight years old. I’ve extracted the introduction to the Film Note I wrote before the final version was released:
Blade Runner, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick and directed by Ridley Scott, was originally released in 1982 to general critical derision and was a box office failure. However it became a cult movie (see Part Four: Contexts – Audience) and was eventually re-released as Blade Runner – the Director’s Cut in 1992. Critical reception was again mixed but the box office, on a restricted release, was relatively good. In 1982 most viewers were impressed by the astounding vision of the future presented by the film but many were confused by the narrative and assumed it to be incoherent.
Now the film is ‘canonised’ by York Film Notes and the British Film Institute’s ‘modern classics’ series, it is seen to be an endlessly fascinating movie and one of the few great science fiction films of the twentieth century.
In Britain at least, science fiction (SF) remains in the literary ghetto inhabited by pulp fiction. In bookshops the genre is corralled on its own – like Crime – and the glaring, lurid, Day-Glo colours of the books seem to ‘warn off’ non-anoraks. In North America, however, the genre thrives in academic journals and is recognised as one of the most vibrant areas of literature.
It is probably the ‘fantasy’ element of SF that puts many off the genre: the belief that it has nothing to say about contemporary life and that its narrative worlds are unbelievable. Certainly much of SF, like all genres, is essentially escapist and, as such, performs an important function. However we must distinguish between these SF texts which are ‘non-genre’, or ‘soft’, SF, and those which deal with issues concerning what it means to be human which are ‘genre’, or ‘hard’, SF. Far from escaping everyday life, these texts often lead us into the mire of contemporary existence. Genre SF is never about the future, it is about now.
Blade Runner is ‘genre’ SF and deals with questions of humanity through a comparison between the replicants – particularly Roy Batty – and their hunter, Deckard. Although the replicants are machines the film suggests that, in the characters of Batty and Rachel, they have much to teach us about acting like a human being. Although Deckard appears to be the central character, he verges on being an anti-hero in his attitude and actions.
Fans of ‘genre’ SF are used to considering such issues, just as they are used to creating – through their reading – alien worlds. The critics who complained that they could not make sense of the world of L.A. 2019 were simply not working hard enough. For example, it is quite easy to infer the answers to the following questions:
- Question: Why is it always dark? Answer: There has been an ecological disaster that has polluted the atmosphere, virtually obliterating the sun.
- Why is the city full of ‘foreigners’? A. Everyone who can has gone Off-world and the races left behind are those who have been economically discriminated against.
- Why is the language spoken on the street unlike our own? A. Language is constantly changing and the cityspeak of LA 2019 is a melange of Japanese, German and Spanish. This evokes the future by combining languages to make the familiar different.
- Why are some parts of the city overcrowded and others deserted? A. The over-crowding is seen in the market sector; Sebastian’s apartment is deserted but who would want to live there?
And so on.
The film’s fascination does not simply reside in its philosophy; the extraordinary nature of its visual conception provides virtually endless visual pleasure and presents a well rounded, convincing view of our future.
Because the film became a cult, obsessive fans have analysed the film frame by frame and shared their conclusions on the internet. In addition, the ‘false’ ending in the original version provided fuel for much debate during the 1980s which the release of the ‘director’s cut’ in 1991 only partially dampened. Discussion of Blade Runner is encouraged because it is an open text that allows a wide range of interpretation to be justified from a close reading.
To enjoy Blade Runner you do not have to be a fan of SF you simply have to be interested in what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.
If that whetted your appetite you can buy the kindle edition: Film Notes: Blade Runner