We are only four years away from 2019, also known as the year of the world of Blade Runner, and we are nowhere near the nightmarish dystopia that director Ridley Scott envisioned on the big screen. Scott’s Los Angeles is a grim and wet metropolis, teeming with larger-than life advertisements, clusters of high-rise buildings, and gritty street vendors hawking their wares to the poverty-stricken dregs of lower-level society… ok, apart from the flying cars whirring across the screen, Scott’s look into the future may not have been that off-base. Adapted from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, who died the year Blade Runner was released, Scott’s 1982 cinematic masterpiece is not only a certified cult classic but it is also a visual and thematic influence on nearly every science fiction film released in the last three decades.
Set in a time when androids have been created to serve humankind, Blade Runner examines the relationship between man and his dangerously rebellious creation along the lines of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but with a futuristic edge. Known in the film as “replicants,” the androids look and act like human beings; the only way to detect one, in fact, is to administer a question-and-answer test that measures emotional responses in the test subject. Programmed to have a finite lifespan of only a few years and sent to colonies outside of Earth to work, replicants pose a threat when they become self-aware and insist on being reprogrammed to live out a longer and more fulfilling existence. Four such replicants, led by an inspired Rutger Hauer, have returned to Earth in order to seek out their creator – the head of a corporate conglomerate who harbors no intention of fulfilling their demands – and must be terminated before their mission claims a mass of human lives.
Enter the protagonist of our story, a harried cop known as a “Blade Runner,” whose task is to track and kill the renegade replicants. Played by Harrison Ford in his action-hero heyday, Rick Deckard is modeled after detectives from hardboiled crime novels of the 1930s and 40s: gruff, nonconformist, and cagily seduced by a femme fatale (Sean Young), who in this case happens to be a replicant. As Deckard becomes more embroiled in the plight of replicants, he begins to question the morality of his assignment – and eventually, his own humanity.
The definitive neo-noir, Blade Runner is a visual marvel in terms of how it transplants mid-century pulp fiction into an alienating, dystopic future environment. Ford’s Deckard and Sean Young’s Rachel look and sound as though they’ve stepped off the pages of a Raymond Chandler novel; on the opposite end of the visual spectrum, Daryl Hannah is a space-age cyberpunk goddess as replicant Pris. The film as a whole is not perfect – at times it is sluggishly paced and wanders into an excessively philosophical dimension – but if remembered for nothing else, Scott’s unique approach to art direction and set design secured Blade Runner’s influence on countless science fiction films for decades to follow.
Thirty-three years after the film’s initial theatrical release, Blade Runner exists in our modern world in many different varieties: whether you’ve seen the initial U.S. release, the “international” cut, the first “Director’s Cut” (devoid of the painfully deadpan voiceover narration from Ford and the tacked-on ‘happy’ ending) – or the most recent incarnation, the “Final Cut” – the film is ever-changing, and open for examination in ways not previously possible. The most famous subject for debate surrounding the film – whether or not a certain main character is, in fact, a replicant – is still being deliberated by fans old and new, who find intrigue not in definitively answering that question, but in pondering what the answer would imply about the future of the human race. The genre of science fiction, perhaps more than any other subject-specific forms of storytelling, often poses the loftiest questions – and it is our search for answers that brings us back to stories like Blade Runner, time and again.