Release of Heralds a Science-Fiction Classic

Although poorly received on its release in 1982, Blade Runner became a cult classic and demonstrated director Ridley Scott’s technical perfection and mastery of the visual medium.

Summary of Event

When director Ridley Scott Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Ridley Scott[Scott] started work on the science-fiction film Blade Runner in 1980, his 1979 film Alien
Motion pictures;Alien
Alien (film) had made him as hot a director as almost any in Hollywood. Set on a giant spaceship, Alien combined elements of the horror and science-fiction genres to terrify and enthrall audiences at the same time. Some critics carped at the derivative story line, but none had anything but praise for the film’s sets and the visual splendor. Although Alien was a straightforward commercial production, it demonstrated Scott’s willingness to take risks, as in his tracking shot of the interior of a spaceship a sequence that most Hollywood directors would consider overly “arty” for such a film. Blade Runner (film)
Motion pictures;Blade Runner
[kw]Release of Blade Runner Heralds a Science-Fiction Classic (June, 1982)
[kw]Blade Runner Heralds a Science-Fiction Classic, Release of (June, 1982)
[kw]Science-Fiction Classic, Release of Blade Runner Heralds a (June, 1982)
Blade Runner (film)
Motion pictures;Blade Runner
[g]North America;June, 1982: Release of Blade Runner Heralds a Science-Fiction Classic[04880]
[g]United States;June, 1982: Release of Blade Runner Heralds a Science-Fiction Classic[04880]
[c]Motion pictures and video;June, 1982: Release of Blade Runner Heralds a Science-Fiction Classic[04880]
Scott, Ridley
Mead, Syd
Paull, Lawrence G.
Trumbull, Douglas
Yuricich, Richard
Cronenweth, Jordan
Fancher, Hampton
Peoples, David
Dick, Philip K.

Alien promoted Scott’s reputation as a master craftsman in visual detail and in atmospherics. It also underlined his ability to utilize the genius of others to produce a desired effect (in this case, the designs of Swiss artist H. R. Giger). Scott’s first film, The Duellists (1977), Duellists, The (film) set in the early 1800’s, had also drenched the eye with scenes of breathtaking beauty. He made it after learning his craft in television commercials (a path taken by many modern British directors) and after winning numerous awards for the many commercials in which he participated.

Taking on Blade Runner meant two science-fiction films in a row for Scott, although he claimed not to have any particular leaning toward science fiction. The plot of Blade Runner concerns a revolt in the year 2019 by “replicants” living beings designed and assembled in the form of humans. After murdering several people, a group of replicants escapes to Earth from a space colony in order to find out how to prolong the replicants’ limited life span. A bounty hunter (the “blade runner”) is assigned to kill the replicants. He reluctantly proceeds to do so, despite his distaste for killing beings with whom he increasingly feels empathy and with one of whom he eventually falls in love. As he “retires” them, one by one, the replicants desperately search for information on their origins and their makers. Eventually, the leader of the replicants tracks down the head of the Tyrell Corporation, manufacturers of the replicants, only to discover that their four-year life span cannot be altered. The leader kills the corporate head and returns to the group’s hideaway for a final confrontation with the blade runner, who has in the meantime shot the only other remaining member of the escaped group. In a moving finale, the replicant spares the blade runner’s life even as he himself dies.

Perhaps the most astonishing achievement of the film is the creation of a totally believable cityscape of the future. The opening shots place the viewer in an urban environment that is both familiar and nightmarish. Rain falls interminably from overcast skies onto polluted streets groaning with detritus. Giant video screens advertise the attractiveness of living “off-world.” At ground level, an overcrowded, multiethnic population frantically ekes out an existence as gigantic skyscrapers overhead play host to the powerful and the rich.

Scott and his main visual collaborators production designer Lawrence G. Paull, special-effects supervisors Douglas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich, and “visual futurist” Syd Mead used all their combined creativity to make this future world seem real, both in particular detail and in overall effect. They used the old Warner Bros. “New York” set and added high-tech machinery of every kind, including $100,000 worth of neon signs (many borrowed from another 1982 film, One from the Heart). For models, they borrowed skyscrapers from Escape from New York (1981) and even converted a spaceship from Star Wars (1977) into another building.

Harrison Ford Ford, Harrison played the blade runner. Some critics thought him too cold, although emotionally repressed and brutal are probably nearer the mark. Rutger Hauer Hauer, Rutger gave a haunting portrayal of the replicant leader who gains viewers’ sympathy despite his commission of numerous atrocities. Sean Young, Young, Sean as a replicant who thinks she is human, is beautiful and vulnerable and perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film. Darryl Hannah Hannah, Darryl plays a “Standard Pleasure Model” replicant who is simultaneously alluring and chilling.

On Blade Runner’s release, most critics lavished praise on the film for its visual texture and look but found the characters poorly drawn. Roger Ebert’s view was typical: “a stunningly interesting visual achievement, but a failure as a story.” Audiences seemed to agree the film lost money at the box office. Despite a narrative voice-over by Ford’s character, viewers had difficulty following the plot. Yet Philip K. Dick, the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Dick) the novel on which Blade Runner is based, was stunned by his first viewing before the film’s general release; he remarked that the film’s creators had done “sight simulation on my brain,” adding, “this is a new art form.” The film did gain some recognition with Academy Award nominations for its visual effects and its set direction and decoration. Science-fiction fans gave it the 1982 Hugo Award as the year’s best science-fiction film.


Blade Runner recovered from its dismal initial reception to become a minor classic over time. It is hard to think of any other film that repudiated its critics so squarely. If Scott’s Thelma and Louise was a sleeper that gained momentum over the summer of 1991, then Blade Runner was the sleeper of the entire 1980’s. All through the decade, its reputation grew. The film eventually went into the black through huge video sales and rentals.

With hindsight, one can see that Blade Runner was a film slightly before its time. By 1985, an illustrated history of science fiction, Future Visions: The New Golden Age of the Science Fiction Film, was calling it “among the most compelling and original of recent science-fiction pictures.” The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1988) forecast the film’s possible future status as a masterpiece by comparing it to Stanley Kubrick’s Kubrick, Stanley 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001: A Space Odyssey (film)[Two thousand one] By 1990, The New York Times stated that Blade Runner was “regarded by many critics as a classic of science fiction.”

It is not possible to evaluate the importance of Blade Runner without first placing the film in the context of other science-fiction films. One of the great challenges of science fiction, both in literature and on the screen, is to create a plausible future (or alien) society with convincing textural detail. The first film to attempt this was Fritz Lang’s Lang, Fritz masterpiece Metropolis (1927), Metropolis (film) a seminal influence on science-fiction film. If anything, Lang’s future dystopia is even more nightmarish than Blade Runner’s. Such was the achievement of this classic that not until 2001 did any science-fiction film achieve anything like the same prominence. 2001 changed filmgoers’ paradigms with regard to science fiction, but its action takes place aboard a spaceship; Kubrick made no detailed attempt to envisage the shape of societies to come. In the 1970’s, the success of George Lucas’s Lucas, George
Star Wars
Star Wars (film trilogy) spurred new Hollywood activity in science fiction and paved the way for the special effects that would be used so adroitly in Blade Runner. The two films do not bear direct comparison, however; Star Wars is a space fantasy its landscapes and architecture are the stuff of dreams, not of predictions.

In measuring the success of Blade Runner, therefore, the only comparable film is Metropolis. Other films such as Soylent Green (1973) and Escape from New York, although successful as action films, do not really attempt to detail the architecture and societal relationships of the future. Scott’s creation of an alternative world can also be contrasted with David Lynch’s failure in Dune, released in 1984.

Commentators have asserted that Blade Runner did for science-fiction film what editor John W. Campbell, Jr., Campbell, John W., Jr. did for written science fiction in the 1940’s: made it totally realistic and reemphasized the possible consequences of new technology in the near future. The great science-fiction writer Robert Silverberg wrote that such realism in showing the way the future might look is the best thing that science-fiction film has to offer.

Blade Runner’s direct and indirect influences are pervasive. The films in James Cameron’s Terminator series, which tell stories about human-made beings fighting human beings, were influenced by Scott’s film. Commentators have also noted the influence of Blade Runner on music videos, on such television programs as Max Headroom, and on the “cyberpunk” movement in science-fiction writing. In 1989, the Rolling Stones Rolling Stones spent $18 million on a concert set that Mick Jagger described as evoking Blade Runner. Around the same time, The Wall Street Journal noted that the Blade Runner cityscape had become shorthand for describing conditions in urban America.

Sales of the fiction of Philip K. Dick increased greatly as a result of the burgeoning popularity of the film version of his novel. Although respected by critics, Dick’s books sold few copies until Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was republished under the title Blade Runner, introducing thousands to his unique brand of metaphysics and futurism.

Blade Runner had an impact beyond that generated by its visual splendor. Dozens of articles, many written by academics, continue to be written on its underlying meanings and iconography. Reading such articles, it is hard to believe that early critics labeled the characterization shallow and the plot uninspired. Some of the later critics have gone so far as to argue against Scott’s early assertion that the film is basically entertainment.

Ridley Scott did not have the “final cut” in the first released version of Blade Runner. In early 1992, inspired by continuing interest in the film, he issued a “director’s cut” and saw the film take in an amazing $80,000 in a single week in one San Francisco theater. The updated version panders less to the mass audience; gone is the Ford voice-over and some dialogue that spells out the plot twists. Variety called the new film a classic, and Warner Bros. released the new version nationwide. Blade Runner (film)
Motion pictures;Blade Runner

Further Reading

  • Bukatman, Scott. “Blade Runner.” London: British Film Institute, 1997. Brief scholarly work looks at the ways in which responses to Blade Runner changed over the years after its initial release. Includes bibliography.
  • Dick, Philip K. Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Reprint. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982. The novel on which Blade Runner is based. Dick refused to write a “novelization” of the film for Warner Bros., so the novel was retitled instead. A fascinating read; the book and film complement each other to a remarkable degree. The book has more metaphysical speculation and several more layers of plot, including some excellent plot twists.
  • Kael, Pauline. Review of Blade Runner. The New Yorker, July 12, 1982, 82-85. Complains that all of Scott’s creativity in the film went into the sets and not into the acting, dialogue, or plot. Generally praises the actors for doing what they could with what they were given; the exception is Rutger Hauer, who is criticized for a “scenery chewing” performance.
  • Kerman, Judith B., ed. Retrofitting “Blade Runner”: Issues in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991. For those who want to know everything there is to consider and know about Blade Runner. The academic-sounding title conceals some fascinating and revealing articles. The first half of the book expounds theses and deals with issues in a scholarly fashion. The second half, probably of greater interest to the general reader, deals with the making of the film and with viewers’ reactions to it.
  • Menville, Douglas, and R. Reginald. Futurevisions: The New Golden Age of the Science Fiction Film. Van Nuys, Calif.: Newcastle, 1985. An appreciative and well-written account of major science-fiction films, with particular emphasis on Star Wars and after. Gives invaluable contextual information on the precursors to Blade Runner. Written in an undogmatic and knowledgeable style, without disdain for merely commercial films.
  • Peary, Danny. Cult Movies Three: Fifty More of the Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Offbeat book discusses many films that, like Blade Runner, did not get much praise on first release. Includes a discussion of Blade Runner, with credits, synopsis, and stills.
  • Sammon, Paul M. Future Noir: The Making of “Blade Runner.” New York: HarperCollins, 1996. In-depth look at the work that went into the making of the film. Includes several informative appendixes.

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