Blade Runner may well be the most influential flop of all time – studio meddling with the initial cut resulted in a compromised picture that attempted to offset its glacial philosophizing by inserting a jarring voiceover from a less than engaged Harrison Ford. Unsurprisingly, it was not initially a success.
However, the film was not forgotten. Several director’s cut releases exorcised the most egregious additions, allowing it to develop into a cult classic. Aesthetically its film-noir-meets-neon-Tokyo look has influenced every shadowy urban design from Batman Begins to the Star Wars Prequels. Vangelis’ synth soundtrack too has been hugely influential with everyone from electronic pioneers such as Aphex Twin to up and coming synth-pop acts ala Chvrches (check out Tether for a particularly precise piece of Vangelis worship) incorporating the film’s epic soundscapes into their sound.
The most lasting impact of Blade Runner however, has been its thematic questioning of the relationship between humanity and technology and the blurred lines between them. Ford, vulnerable and broken in a brilliant contrast with his more heroic roles, plays Deckard, a member of the titular elite police unit tasked with hunting down rogue replicants- robotic slave workers who surpass their masters in terms of strength and intelligence.
The theme of rebellious Artificial Intelligence was hardly new in 1982, but Blade Runner added an essential ambiguity to the concept
The theme of rebellious Artificial Intelligence was hardly new in 1982 – 2001: A Space Odyssey and Westworld amongst many others had previously explored the implications of technology turning on its masters, but at no point in these films was there any doubt as to who was who. Blade Runner introduced an essential ambiguity to this question that has only grown more prescient. In a divergence from Philip K. Dick’s source novel (the less than snappily titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) the film’s antagonists led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, a man born to play an android) sole motivation is survival. To prevent revolution, replicants have been programmed with a 4-year lifespan, Batty only wants to find a way to extend this and live a normal (human) life. Deckard, on the other hand, is almost mechanical, hunting down his targets and dispatching them without hesitation: a point that is hammered home when, in his final moments of life, Batty chooses to save Deckard: a human moment of mercy in a film almost devoid of them.
A fascinating counterpoint to Blade Runner can be found in Duncan Jones’ Moon. The film’s protagonist is not an android but is similarly created and disposed of by human masters and similarly rebels, proving to be the sole beacon of humanity. Steven Spielberg’s A.I. too is essential companion viewing, exploring a world where the implications of creating a machine capable of love go unconsidered, leaving the child-like robot, David alone for millennia, pining for a mother who has long-since abandoned him.
Blade Runner engages with this concept of love between machines and humans through Rachael, an advanced replicant who has been created to believe she is human. Upon her saving Deckard’s life they fall in love and, despite her limited lifespan, they choose to run away together. This draws a direct comparison with Spike Jonze’s Her, a film that rejects Blade Runner’s pessimism to suggest that technology will bring about a bright future. Here, the loneliness of Joaquin Pheonix’s divorcee, Theodore Twombly can be mitigated through a relationship with an A.I. creation, Samantha, that is no less real than one between two humans.
The final, greatest ambiguity of the movie is the uncertainty around Deckard’s own identity. The film hints that he may be a replicant himself like Rachael, unwittingly manipulated into following the bidding of his superiors/creators. The final scene sees Deckard finding an origami model (the calling card of a fellow Blade Runner) left for him in the shape of a unicorn, a creature he had previously vividly dreamed of, throwing Deckard’s entire existence into doubt. Christopher Nolan’s Inception (Blade Runner is a recurring influence throughout Nolan’s filmography) asks similar questions about the distinctions between reality and dreams, truth and constructs, and too ends on a famously ambiguous note as the audience is left doubting the protagonist’s entire world.
Blade Runner’s DNA continues to resurface in sci-fi cinema (in early 2015 both Ex-Machina and Chappie look set to explore the fraught relationship between advanced androids and their creators) as the themes it explores have continued to permeate contemporary society. In a world where the majority of us conduct a huge amount of our social interaction in virtual worlds through ever-advancing technology, Blade Runner’s 2019 may be not so far from the truth.
Images: Warner Bros