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The Casablanca of Science Fiction

May 26th, 2009 · 8 Comments

Blade Runner (1982)
Screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Directed by Ridley Scott
Produced by The Ladd Company
Running time: 117 minutes

Blade Runner, 1982, poster Blade Runner, 1982, DVD

What the *&#! Is This About?

In Los Angeles – overpopulated and choked in pollution – of the year 2019, the Tyrell Corporation leads the field of robot design with the “Replicant,” a being virtually identical to a human, but superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence. After a mutiny in an off-world colony, Replicants have been declared illegal on Earth, where they are tracked down and “retired” by special police known as blade runners. One of these blade runners administers an empathy test known as the Voight-Kampff to Tyrell employees in an attempt to screen out possible Replicants. One of his subjects – Leon (Brion James) – is pushed too far by the test and shoots the officer. Ex-blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is summoned by his old captain (M. Emmet Walsh) to hunt down four Replicants – two male and two female – who have arrived in L.A. for reasons unknown.

Paired with a cop (Edward James Olmos) who speaks an amalgam of French/German/Hungarian, Deckard goes to see Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel). He learns that a new model of Replicant – the Nexus 6 – has been implanted with memories so real that it may actually believe itself to be human. Designed to develop its own emotional responses, the Nexus 6 has been engineered with a 4-year life span. Tyrell has Deckard administer the Voight-Kampff Test to his secretary Rachael (Sean Young). Deckard realizes that she’s a Nexus 6. Rachael does not react well to news that she’s an artificial being and seeks Deckard out in an effort to cope with this. Meanwhile, the other escaped Replicants – combat model Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), assassin Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and pleasure model Pris (Daryl Hannah) – befriend a lonely robotics designer (William Sanderson) in attempt to infiltrate the Tyrell Corporation, seeking reprieves on their lives and the meaning of their existence.

Blade Runner, 1982, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah

Who Should Be Held Responsible?

Philip K. Dick capped a prolific decade that included 19 novels, 27 short stories and a Hugo Award in 1963 with the publishing of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?‘ in 1968. In a phone interview with Paul M. Sammon a little more than a year before his death in 1981, Dick discussed the novel’s genesis. “It stems from an interest on my part in the problem of differentiating the authentic human being from the reflux machine, which I call an android … Where for me, the word ‘android’ is a metaphor for people who are physiologically human but psychologically behaving in a non-human way. I got interested in this when I was doing research for Man In the High Castle and I was studying the Nazi mentality. And I discovered that although these people were highly intelligent, they were definitely deficient in some manner in appropriate affect, appropriate emotion that would accompany the intellectual process.”

After struggling as both a flamenco dancer and a screenwriter in the 1970s, Hampton Fancher thought he would take a shot at being a film producer. Fancher recalled, “I thought I would produce a movie. And this guy – Jim Maxwell – who’s a close friend, knows me well, said, ‘You might, I think science fiction’s gonna happen.’ And he said, ‘Do you know who Philip K. Dick is?’ I said, no. He said, ‘Well there’s a book called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?‘ And I said, okay, I’ll read that. I read it. I didn’t like it that much. But I thought, okay, that’s commercial. Here’s a thru-line: bureaucratic detective chasing androids. In ’78 or so, my friend Brian Kelly, he had $5,000. He said, ‘Maybe you could get an option and that might be a good commercial project that you could get behind, and, you know, make some money.’ That’s all we’re talking about, is making some money.”

Blade Runner, 1982, Harrison Ford

Brian Kelly zeroed in on producer Michael Deeley with the project. Deeley recalled, “I’d been pursued for about two years by Brian Kelly – who’s a very close friend of mine – who had this idea in mind to make a movie, based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And I’d first read it and thought: this wasn’t very interesting.” Fancher’s take on the material was cerebral and dialogue driven, a cautionary tale of over population and ecological disaster that largely took place in rooms. Fancher pressed ahead anyway, first with a treatment, then several drafts of a screenplay. “The intellectual aspects of the screenplay were taken from my response to the death of animal life on this planet, and what that meant. That’s probably the thing that saw me through the first draft, was I had a passion about that, and so my affection for the project was consistent.”

On the strength of Hampton Fancher’s adaptation, Michael Deeley ultimately agreed to produce the film, opting for the title Dangerous Days. His first choice to direct was Ridley Scott, who was mixing Alien in England at the time. Scott recalled, “I said, ‘I don’t really want to do another science fiction, I’ve just finished one. So, but I’ll read it.’ I read the script, which was Hampton Fancher and it was called Dangerous Days. And I turned it down.” Scott’s friend and associate Ivor Powell had gotten a hold of the script and had a different reaction. Powell recalled, “And I said, ‘Listen, I think we should give this a second thought. I really think this is powerful and emotional and really interesting.” The idea stuck with Scott and when he was unable to crack an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune for producer Dino De Laurentiis agreed to direct Dangerous Days. Hampton Fancher had never cared for that title, and appropriated one from William S. Burroughs that he liked better: Blade Runner.

Blade Runner, 1982, Daryl Hannah

Filmways agreed to finance a budget, but Deeley recalled, “We’d spent about two and a half million by the time it became perfectly clear that the world we were building was much bigger than twelve and a half million dollars. Much, much bigger.” As sets were being constructed, Deeley brokered a three-way arrangement to secure alternate financing and keep the project alive. Producer Alan Ladd Jr. – who had a deal with Warner Bros. – put up $7.5 million for U.S. distribution rights. Singapore movie mogul Sir Run-Run Shaw also invested that sum, for the film’s foreign rights. Another $7 million came from producers Jerry Perenchio and Bud Yorkin, who received TV and home video rights and agreed to finance the completion budget, should Blade Runner go over schedule.

Meanwhille, Hampton Fancher was struggling to conceptualize what Ridley Scott wanted to see. Scott recalled, “The hunter falls in love with the hunted, except they never go outside the apartment. It’s very interior. I want to take them outside the door. Once we go outside the door, this world has to support the thesis that she’s android, humanoid, robot.” He added, “We got up to a point where Hampton was just getting exhausted. Go back to the anvil, back to the anvil, back to the anvil.” David Peoples was approached to deliver a shooting script. Scott added, “Peoples I think is more – and I mean this in the best possible way – is simpler? Hampton is more cerebral. And for the most part this was very cerebral. And I thought, actually, bringing in something like Peoples would maybe create some fresh air in the corridors to make it move. Because my danger as a director is I tend to get very cerebral and get engaged with darkness and detail.” One of Peoples’ contributions ended up being the idea that Roy Batty would save Deckard’s life.

Blade Runner, 1982, Harrison Ford

After Dustin Hoffman spent several months attached to the role of Deckard – moving further away from the filmmakers’ vision as time progressed – actress Barbara Hershey mentioned to Hampton Fancher the name Harrison Ford. A visit that Michael Deeley and Ridley Scott made to England to watch dailies from Raiders of the Lost Ark – then shooting at Pinewood Studios – won them over. Ford recalled, “I remember that I read a script, which I thought was interesting. At the first version that I read of it, of the film, had some issues, I had some issues with. There was a voiceover narration attached to the original script, and I said to Ridley that I played a detective who does no detecting. How about we take some of this information that’s in the voice-overs and put it into scenes, and so that the audience could discover the information, discover the character through seeing him in the context of what he does, rather than being told about it. And some of that survived, and some of it didn’t.”

With conceptual designer Syd Mead creating the industrial look of the film – cars, streets, buildings and neon – Blade Runner commenced shooting March 1981 on the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank. Working in the American film industry for the first time, Ridley Scott mused, “There’s nothing worse when you’ve done two and a half hours of commercials – and I know I’ve got a very good eye – in three seconds I can give you a set-up, having walked in the room without ever seeing it before. So I don’t like discussion. I know exactly what I want, and I want to walk in and say ‘Do it.’ That’s the director’s job. The director’s not meant to stand there and consult with half a dozen people in the room.” In addition to Scott’s brusque communication skills, filming nights under heavy rain and smoke effects wore down the crew – many of whom quit – as well as some of the cast, with Harrison Ford seething through most of the shoot.

A test screening of Blade Runner was held in Dallas in March 1982. Production illustrator Tom Southwell recalled, “Everybody was expecting a heroic follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars and the way it was advertised on television – with only the visual effects shots of a flying car going over a futuristic city and sort of a fight sequence – doesn’t prepare you for the traumatic, emotional side that there is in the film that kind of leaves you sort of broken.” Specific objections raised at the test screening were that the film was too confusing, too dark, too slow and ended too abruptly. Scott addressed these concerns by filming a brighter ending, with Ford and Sean Young escaping to the pristine countryside, and inserting voiceover narration by Ford to help audiences along with the plot.

Blade Runner, 1982

While its visual design won acclaim, many critics were left with a bad taste to the overall film. Janet Maslin, the New York Times: “Science-fiction devotees may find Blade Runner a wonderfully meticulous movie and marvel at the comprehensiveness of its vision. Even those without a taste for gadgetry cannot fail to appreciate the degree of effort that has gone into constructing a film so ambitious and idiosyncratic … But Blade Runner is a film that special effects could have easily run away with, and run away with it they have. And it’s also a mess, at least as far as its narrative is concerned.” Pauline Kael, the New Yorker: “Blade Runner doesn’t engage you directly; it forces passivity on you. It sets you down in this lopsided maze of a city, with its post-human feeling, and keeps you persuaded that something bad is about to happen. Some the scenes seem to have six subtexts but no text, and no context either.” Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun Times: “Blade Runner is a stunningly interesting visual achievement, but a failure as a story.”

In June 1982 during its first weekend of release in the U.S., Blade Runner opened big; only E.T. was drawing a bigger crowd. But as word of mouth spread – and audiences flocked to Rocky III or Star Trek II - the film’s commercial prospects sank. Grossing $32.6 million in the U.S., Blade Runner was not only deemed a commercial disappointment, but a creative disappointment by some of the people who’d worked on it. In 2007, associate producer Ivor Powell recalled, “For me, it’s still – emotionally – falls short of total satisfaction because I just think there is an emotional logic and a sort of a narrative logic that doesn’t run as true as I feel that it should do, and in a sense I felt that what we made was an incredibly beautiful looking – as one would expect with Rid – but it’s almost like an art movie.”

Blade Runner, 1982, Joanna Cassidy

Accordingly, Blade Runner became a staple of midnight screenings on college campuses or at revival houses. Then in 1990, a work print seen only at test screenings in Denver and Dallas was briefly exhibited in Los Angeles. Popular demand for a definitive version of Blade Runner led to Ridley Scott being permitted to supervise a “Director’s Cut” in 1992. The much maligned voiceover narration and the upbeat ending were both removed and 12 cryptic seconds of Deckard dreaming of a unicorn was inserted. In addition to audiences who’d missed it, critics who’d seen Blade Runner and given it a lackluster appraisal started changing their assessment. By 2007, Roger Ebert had begrudgingly added Blade Runner to his list of Great Movies, amending his 1982 review by writing, “I have been assured that my problems in the past with Blade Runner represent a failure of my own taste and imagination, but if the film was perfect, why has Sir Ridley continued to tinker with it, and now released his fifth version? I guess he’s only human.”

Commenting in 2007 on the reception of Blade Runner, writer-director Frank Darabont mused, “’82 I think was owned by E.T. It’s a brilliant film, I’m taking absolutely nothing away from it, but it was definitely happy comfort food. It always will be. It’s one of the best examples of that kind of film ever. I’m not damning it with faint praise. It’s wonderful. But I think that everyone was so plugged into the happy comfort food at that time that they weren’t giving movies like Blade Runner a chance, or John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing.” Also in 2007, special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull summed up what he finds enduring about Blade Runner: “We’re in a movie business where most movies are disposable commodities. They’re the summer blockbuster. I’m not going to name what they are, but they come and go in weeks and, bye bye. Nobody wants to resurrect them. Nobody wants to see them again. So the ones that are really truly well made – the kind of Casablancas of science fiction – survive, and get seen over and over.”

Blade Runner, 1982, Sean Young

Should I Care?
Instead of reassuring the audience with a hopeful vision of the future, Blade Runner is an emotional downpour. The atmosphere is choked with smoke and rain. Animal life is endangered. The background dialects are impenetrable. Citizens with the means have fled Earth. Those who’ve stayed behind struggle to relate to each other as humans because in the film’s vision of the future, we’ve replicated life beyond the point to retain what it means to be human. The strengths and weaknesses of Blade Runner come down to it being one of the grandest art films of all time, second only to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The story never adheres to a straightforward detective mystery. Where the Replicants are or how Deckard finds them is the least interesting business in the picture.

What Fancher and Peoples do so well in their script is pose questions about what it means to be human, and where we might be headed if we continue to lose sight of that. Rutger Hauer, Brion James, Daryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy perform some of the finest work of their careers as the Replicants – the real heroes of the film – as does Harrison Ford, who brings the right amount of downbeaten sleaze to his role. Blade Runner is deliberate and comes close to paralyzing the viewer with stimulus overload, but Ridley Scott’s eye for detail and his design genius are never in question. The stunning cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth and haunting electronic score by Vangelis add immensely to the well-deserved re-evaluation of Blade Runner as a classic.

© Joe Valdez

Blade Runner, 1982, Harrison Ford

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?

Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. By Paul M. Sammon. HarperPrism (1996)

Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. Blade Runner (Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition). Warner Home Video (2007)

Tags: Alternate universe · Ambiguous ending · Based on novel · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · End of the world · Famous line · Femme fatale · Forensic evidence · Interrogation · Man vs. machine

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jorn // Nov 14, 2008 at 5:02 am

    Wow great read! You put a lot of effort into this. I love this movie, this soundtrack everything about it. I hope the future is not like that of course, but even when I am looking at it, I want to be there. It draws me in.

  • 2 tanniger // Nov 14, 2008 at 11:51 am

    If you’re going to so heavily quote from Paul M. Sammon’s FUTURE NOIR: THE MAKING OF BLADE RUNNER, the least you could do is list your source. Or credit it’s author. Shame on you.

  • 3 Kimberly // Nov 17, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    I just watched this over the weekend for the 10+ time (it was on the Sci-Fi channel) and fell in love with it all over. It’s easily one of my favorite films from the ’80s and one of the best science fiction films ever made. I have a terrible crush on ’80s era Rutger Haur.

  • 4 kelsy // May 27, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    I’ve seen the 45 minutes or so of this movie and then got bored and turned it off. I kind of want to give it another chance, but I’m just not that motivated to besides the fact that apparently it’s a classic.

  • 5 Matthew L. // May 30, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    Joe: I’d like to see you do a series on VIOLENT films, like Fight Club, Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Watchmen, American Psycho, Natural Born Killers, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, 300, Sin City, A Clockwork Orange, and so on…

    Also, maybe do a series on M. Night Shyamalan too? Some fun stories behind them, and I’d love hear what you think about those as well.

  • 6 Yojimbo_5 // Jun 2, 2009 at 11:56 am

    I love the Kael line—”six sub-texts and no text”—and it’s why “Blade Runner” bothers me so much. Ridley Scott is a tremendous film-maker, but a lousy story-teller: “How much can I obfuscate the point?” and it’s visual equivalent is all the fluff he puts in the air.

    But I love watching “Blade Runner.” It’s such a deep dive into atmosphere and design.

    But the fact of the matter is: Ridley Scott doesn’t know what it’s about. He thinks it’s about rock’em-sock’em replicants. He’s convinced himself and planted images that suggest Deckard is a replicant.

    But that’s just stupid. Is it the story of a jaded human assassin who re-finds his humanity in the struggle for life of his targets? Or is it the story of a replicant who finds…what? What does he learn?

    And if Scott believes that Deckard is a more advanced replicant (as he states in an interview in Sammon’s book), why does Batty wipe the floor with him?

    I’m not sure why those who subscribe to the Deckard-is-a-replicant theory are so adamant about it, I suspect that they’re just creeped out with a Deckard-Rachel relationship (but there are “pleasure-model replicants,” so what’s the problem….)

    I believe what I want to believe, and Scott can tinker as much as he wants—I’m not sure why folks demonize Lucas for this habit, but turn a blind eye to Scott doing the same thing.

    I guess I’m not sure about a lot of things about “Blade Runner”—which puts me in company with its director.

    It’s always good reading, Joe. Bravo.

  • 7 Joe Valdez // Jun 2, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Jorn: I remember seeing this as a 9-year-old and hoping the future would look like that. Then I remember my dad telling me he sure hoped not. Now of course I can relate to the themes of Blade Runner beyond just flying cars. Thanks for commenting.

    tanniger: The quotes in this article all share the same source: the documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner directed by Charles de Lauzirika. This can be found on the Blade Runner 5-Disc Complete Collector’s Edition DVD. There have been a lot of people writing about the same series of events when it comes to Blade Runner, but their fine work does not appear anywhere in this article.

    Kimberly: I’m sure you’ve seen Flesh+Blood. Rutger Hauer had a good decade indeed. I’m sure he’s gotten a lot of mileage with the ladies by telling them he wrote the “tears in the rain” dialogue. I’m kind of surprised you’ve “only” seen this 10+ times. Thanks for commenting!

    Kelsy: Blade Runner is most definitely a classic, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it. I haven’t worked up the motivation to watch anything directed by Wim Wenders in its entirety.

    Matthew: A Festival of Violence makes me concerned what effect watching all those movies in a row might have on me. The M. Night Shyamalan series is an interesting idea, though. I think the quality of his six films is directly related to how long he spent writing them. The Happening seems like it was written in the waiting room at Jiffy Lube. Thanks for commenting!

    Jim: Both Harrison Ford and Hampton Fancher have disputed the fan notion that Deckard is a Replicant. One of the subtexts of the film is that 21st century man is losing its humanity and that it takes an android to sort of wake Deckard up to this. If he’s a Replicant, it doesn’t make any sense. Illogic aside, I enjoy watching the film as well. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with the class.

  • 8 AR // Jun 5, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Great entry! This is one of my favorite movies, one that holds up to multiple viewings. I saw the final cut on the big screen–you really don’t get a sense of the city’s or buildings’ immensity in any other format, which really enhances the sense that you are in a different world.

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