Throwback Thursday: Dystopian Dick—Blade Runner

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

As mentioned in my previous columns, with CONvergence coming up in July and running with their theme of dystopian visions, I’m delving into the film adaptations of Philip K. Dick. I will stay away from comparisons to his novels and short stories as much as possible and focus specifically on the films themselves.

It’s funny. The more I enjoy a film, I’ve noticed, the less I generally want to talk about it. I think in a bad film, it’s all about the missed opportunities—you can talk a lot about what you would have liked to see, or what you think should have been done. However, what can be said about a good or great film that hasn’t been said before by better wordsmiths than me? I don’t know, but I guess we’re about to find out.

The pinnacle of Philip K. Dick adaptations (some may argue of films in general) and the final film I will be reviewing for Dystopian Dick is director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).

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This film and the novel it’s based on, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” fall fully into category of Dick’s work that explores the “soul” motif. In the near future, replicants (androids) are used off-world in dangerous locations and not allowed on Earth—when one violates this, it is “retired” by a special type of cop, called a blade runner. As with most of Dick’s stories dealing with artificial intelligence, the conflict comes down to whether these replicants have souls and whether they deserve to live their lives.

The film follows the same rough plot as the novel, but there are a number of divergences. I think the two can be considered companion pieces to each other; they explore similar themes with the same end goal but do it surprisingly differently. For example, the book focuses on more than just humanoid replicants, also featuring animal replicants that the film just doesn’t have time for. There are artificial animals in the film, but time isn’t spent on why we need them. Instead the film drops us right into this dystopic world and hits the ground running.

Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a blade runner forced out of retirement to killing four escaped replicants. Ford gives Deckard a world-weary take, and you can tell the character doesn’t want to be doing what he is. Whether it’s just because he’s old and tired or because he’s started to question his job you don’t know for sure, but the fatigue comes through in his eyes.

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Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard

Across the board, this cast is top notch. Rutger Hauer is Roy Batty, the leader of the escaped replicants, playing him with a dignified ferocity. He will not go quiet into that good night. His final monologue in the film is something that is often quoted, but never duplicated, with the intensity, pathos, and yearning for life that only Hauer could give it. Brion James (a great character actor), Joanna Cassidy (an underrated actress), and Daryl Hannah (you may have heard of her) round out the other replicants, and each showcases a slightly different need for life.

Set up as opposite sides of the same coin, William Sanderson and Joe Turkel portray the reclusive geniuses who created the replicants. It is an interesting dichotomy to see unveiled as the film goes on: one is clinically detached, while the other just wants friends.

Sean Young plays Rachael, the femme fatale role, which is normally a thankless character, but she also brings a certain humanity to it that can’t be undersold. Edward James Olmos portrays Gaff, another member of the police force. It’s interesting to know that he created his own patois for the role, and a lot of time you don’t understand the words he’s using but you get what his intent is—a daring choice that works very well in helping to create this world.

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Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty

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Sean Young as Rachael

What else helps to create this world besides the amazing characters? The scenic design. Taking Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as a starting point, Lawrence Paull (production designer) and David Snyder (art director) brought a number of other influences to the mix. Everything from Mœbius (check him out) to noir to Times Square. This world feels lived in. The streets are packed with people, and it seems to always be dark and raining, all framed amazingly by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth. This film is now regarded as having one of the quintessential scenic designs for a sci-fi film, and you can see its influence permeate modern films.

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It has affected so many ways filmmakers view the future it’s amazing that at the time of its release in 1982 it was a box-office failure. It wasn’t until many years later that people started to gravitate towards it. Part of that can be attributed to studio interference—this being only Ridley Scott’s third film, the studio strongarmed him into some major changes after some poor test screenings that affected the flow of the film. One of those is a much-reviled voiceover narration by Harrison Ford. You can almost hear how much Ford hated recording these voiceovers, and he has gone on record that he was adamantly opposed to it. The other major change was the ending: the original ending could be interpreted very openly, whereas the studio wanted a happy ending. The re-shot ending was one step short of riding into the sunset, giving us the only green grass in the entire film, and just felt wrong.

There are a number of different versions of the film out there to choose from. All are slightly different, but I would point a new viewer to the director’s cut, finally released in 1992, which restores the original ending and removes the narration. This is the version I prefer, but the original release is interesting as a comparison to see how some changes can affect a whole film. Where the original-release ending skews more towards a typical “Hollywood ending,” the original ending that the studio didn’t like definitely plays up the humanity of the characters and even dares to ask if Deckard is human and whether he has a soul. There’s also a “final cut” version of the film that was released in 2007 and has some minor edits, including a little bit of tweaked special effects.

After watching all eleven adaptations for this series, I think my original premise holds true.  There are two main themes running through all of Philip K. Dick’s work: fate and the soul. The “fate” films largely focus on time paradoxes: if someone has knowledge of the future, does that change the future? The “soul” films revolve around the nature of humanity: does a cyborg, for example, have the ability to feel, care, and grow? Who or what is truly “human”? Out of all these films, there is only one I can’t recommend, and that’s Radio Free Albemuth. With all the others, though the quality varies, there is always something positive to point out.

The pinnacle of greatness, however, is Blade Runner—great script, great acting, great direction, great cinematography. Bottom line: I can’t recommend this film enough.

Once the official CONvergence panel list comes out, I’m sure we’ll see panels on Dick and his dystopias. Hope to see you out at them.

Feel free to discuss the film further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

Check out the previous installments of Dystopian Dick:

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