"Things you people wouldn't believe..." Blade Runner at forty
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, initially unsuccessful but now an accepted classic and hugely influential, was released four decades ago today. When the film arrived in Britain three months later, I was so mesmerised that I saw it again the following week and have been fascinated by it ever since. Connecting new audiences with my online project Fragments of a hologram rose: Re-seeing Blade Runner, originally completed for the thirtieth anniversary, thus seems fitting.
There are five pieces, one for each aspect of visual culture I cover on this site. Under Film, Tears in rain explores ambiguities, errors and the remains of discarded concepts still visible in the finished film. In Architecture, the realisation of the urban environment of 2019 Los Angeles is examined with The city and the city. For Design, I suggest automotive and aerospace influences on the Spinner through Tools of the trade. Walk through Syd Mead’s sumptuous paintings of LA’s streets in Painting the future under Art. And links between the melancholic Esper sequence, Velazquez’s Las Meninas and Samuel van Hoogstraten’s remarkable ‘peepshow’ box in the National Gallery feature in All-seeing eye for Television.
The idea is that each piece illuminates a portion of the whole, inspiration coming from the William Gibson short story whose title I borrow for the project’s. A sixth piece containing my thoughts on That Question is not shown in the menus and is accessible only by finding and clicking on a link hidden somewhere in the 7,500 words of text; it seemed appropriate.
Those screenings in September 1982 were transformational for me. I already knew the story thanks to the official ‘movie magazine’, but actually seeing the film was something else. I was gripped by the existentialist drama of the plot, enjoyed the mix of hard-boiled dialogue and lyrical romance and had seen visions of the future before, most obviously in Star Wars five years earlier, but encountered nothing like this. The neon-drenched night-time streets, Syd Mead’s flawlessly conceived Spinners cutting through industrial haze and Art Deco architecture all immediately appealed. I had read Scott describing Blade Runner as a film set forty years in the future but looking like it was made forty years ago and recognised that Rachael’s exquisite suit owed a debt to the noir of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I suspect I also appreciated Scott’s remarkable – even obsessive – level of detail in other areas, such as the fictitious magazines complete with coverlines and photographs that would sit on newsstands virtually unseen; as a child I’d stapled felt-tip drawings and stories together into comics, assembled plastic model kits and ‘directed’ my father as he built me a railway layout or Great War diorama.
In later years, of course, I delved further into the richly immersive vision that had emerged from the minds of Scott, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth. In common with several genre films of the time, traditional techniques that had taken decades to perfect were employed by veterans under the agile imagination of a younger man, raised in another country and expert in another medium – television. The results were sometimes hard-won but always beautiful. I came to see theirs as a fractal world – no matter how close the viewer gets, there is always another layer to see and the entire film could usefully be fed into an Esper machine itself to aid exploration of its treasures.
The narrative has Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? at its core, but with the iterative screenplays of Hampton Fancher and David Peoples layered in. I never minded the voiceover that troubled many (including Harrison Ford and Scott) – indeed, watching the Final Cut today I find it hard not to run it in my mind. With age also comes awareness of the film’s more than casual involvement with death, which haunts all of the major characters whether human or replicant. Importantly, both are born knowing they will die, but only Nexus 6s know when. This difference helps power Roy Batty’s extraordinary, part-improvised final soliloquy, Blade Runner’s ‘Indianapolis’ moment and perhaps its finest.
That scene is a fitting memorial, too, for the late Rutger Hauer, whose fresh, incendiary talent proved the perfect foil to Ford’s dour experience, and those other actors (Morgan Paull, Brion James) and crew members (Cronenweth, Mead, Dick, producer Alan Ladd, Jr.) no longer with us.
Having devoured the few ‘making of’ publications published at the time, including Don Shay’s article in visual effects bible Cinefex, I have always been keen to discover more – not an easy thing when limitless behind-the-scenes footage, conveniently-retained deleted scenes and the internet were not yet an automatic part of any film’s marketing. The genre fans’ mecca that was Forbidden Planet was for many years the only portal to what was available, which I supplemented with newspaper clippings and my own scribbled notes from each new version or screening (including a fuzzy, semi-illicit Television South broadcast captured by my London bedroom’s aerial that seemed tantalisingly different in the days when ‘pan and scan’ was a frustration for any committed TV viewer).
More has appeared since, not least Paul M. Salmon’s revelation in 1993 of multiple versions of the film, which led eventually to the Final Cut and Charles de Lauzirika’s sublime, three hour Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. There has though never been a lavish coffee table book on the subject, surprisingly given such things appear with some regularity nowadays. Salmon’s own Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner remains the definitive written account as a result, though it is plainly produced. Today, of course, the web that had barely been invented in 1982 is awash with features, memories (of green??), theories and tributes to Scott’s film, and in that context Fragments… is merely my own contribution. But I do think its combination of those primary and now rare sources, unique insights from unusual angles and in-depth research mean it has some useful things to say.
It is clear Ridley Scott’s sublime achievement will still be pored over and talked about up to and beyond its centenary. And why not – despite the gloom, it has burned so very, very brightly.