Visually breathtaking, even 35 years later, Blade Runner rightly remains a science fiction classic.
The year is 2019, and smokestacks spout fire above Los Angeles. Below, the streets are bursting with life. Neon stalls and crowded markets suffer through rain and smog, flying cars purge themselves in filthy alleyways, and the all-seeing eye of an advertising blimp glides between the buildings. Towering above it all is the Tyrell Corporation’s ziggurat – a monument to the god of this new world, Dr Eldon Tyrell, the creator of more-human-than-human replicants.
These are the first images of Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, Blade Runner, and they are stunning. Better yet, over the next two hours, you get to witness imagery even more sumptuous and intriguing, while connecting with some of the richest characters in science fiction. We will follow grizzled Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), as he tracks down and “retires” four escaped replicants – banned bioengineered androids. We will sympathise with those replicants and their search for life beyond their creator’s intentions. And ultimately, we will sympathise with Deckard as he struggles with a brutal system that cares little for the lives within it.
Visually speaking, Scott never stops pushing his film. From those first flaming stacks to Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) final monologue, near every frame of the movie is a feast for the eyes. The contrasted lighting helps immensely in this, setting a noirish mood that reflects the film’s oppressively dark and dirty world. An early bathroom scene particularly stands out, with a fluorescent tube gorgeously backlighting Deckard. Compare that shot to any number in Drive, and it’s clear that film-makers are still openly copying Blade Runner 35 years later – it’s just that cool.
Aside from the lighting, Scott is constantly filling the frame with detail and symbolism. Look out for numerous instances of eye imagery – a visual metaphor that suggests surveillance, humanity, and knowledge. Or perhaps you’d prefer something more subtle, like the fact that they modelled Eldon Tyrell’s bedroom on the Pope’s – something that immediately highlights the film’s religious themes. These little details all build upon one another, creating a rich tapestry of meaning. All of a sudden, Tyrell’s pet owl – also a bioengineered creation – becomes not only a symbol of his wealth, but also his knowledge and divine aspirations. These are the details that make Blade Runner such a beloved film. Repeat viewings are virtually mandatory for a film with this much depth.
The visuals would be empty though without talented actors backing them up, which is why it’s such a blessing that Blade Runner has one of the best performances of the 80’s in Hauer’s Batty. Larger than life, Batty is a magnificently complex creature. Deeply aware of his looming mortality and disposableness, Batty initially attempts to bargain with his creator, before finally rising above a system that considers him worthless. His bemused resignation at the end – a slight smile as he reminisces about the wonders he has seen – is one of the film’s crowning achievements, humanising him to an incredible degree. The life behind Hauer’s performance is awe-inspiring, particularly when taking into account the fact that Batty has had to fight for its recognition. The world sees him as nothing more than an off-world slave, making it even more powerful to watch Batty shed himself of those chains.
Blade Runner is a behemoth of science fiction, and rightly so. It’s an incredibly rich film that takes science fiction concepts dating back to the original Frankenstein and depicts them with nuance and humanity. What right does anyone have to dictate who is and is not human? What right do we have to create life and then dictate its purpose? These questions are at the core of Blade Runner and are served well by some of the best visuals of Ridley Scott’s career. As we approach the release date of Blade Runner 2049, it’s amazing that the original film can still hold its weight. Here’s to hoping that its moments won’t all be lost in time.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros