Out of the darkness – a masterpiece

'Blade Runner': a film of epic scale in which the city is as much a star as the leading characters

The two showings of Blade Runner: The Final Cut at Rye’s Kino cinema on Saturday April 25 and Thursday April 30 offer a rare opportunity to see this impressive science fiction film. With its lavish visual and sonic detail and its great range of scale from huge panoramic cityscapes down to the minute resolution of an electron microscope, this is a film that is best experienced in a cinema.

Blade Runner is the story of a futuristic detective (played by Harrison Ford) hunting down genetically engineered humans, known as replicants, created for the purpose of slavery in “off-world” colonies. A number of these have illegally returned to Earth, and with their superhuman strength and psychopathic tendencies they are considered highly dangerous. This particular group are seeking to meet their “maker”, the mysterious owner of the corporation responsible for their creation, in order to extend their short lifespans. They are the latest generation, with implanted memories to give them a sense of identity, and appear to be developing human-like emotions beyond the intention of their creators. From this premise the film explores powerful themes about the nature of identity, emotion and memory. Most famously, Blade Runner gradually builds a central question about the identity of the lead character himself. Is Deckard the detective actually a human himself, or is he the same as those he is hunting down and euphemistically “retiring”?

The film had a troubled history. There were multiple rewrites of the script and later rancorous disputes between the highly demanding English director Ridley Scott, new to Hollywood in 1982, and his all-American crew. Much of the filming was done at night on the street set built in the lot of Warner studios, under continual artificial rain, leading to exhaustion among cast and crew. Then there were the considerable financial problems with the production.

Everyone, it seems, was under tremendous pressure. To make matters worse, studio executives were not happy with the finished result and demanded major changes. So in the final stages of post-production a voice-over narration was added to clarify the story, together with a new upbeat ending in which the lead characters escaped their dark and oppressive city and found themselves travelling through the sunlit Rocky Mountains in Colorado. This new ending looked cobbled together and it was  – the mountain scenes were actually unused footage from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining two years before.

On its release the critics and public were mostly unimpressed, and the film failed to recoup its costs. Then, gradually, over the next few years, the advent of home video recorders allowed the public to reassess the film at their leisure, and it began to acquire a cult following. It should be pointed out that VHS editions were so dark it was very hard to see much of the picture, and later DVD versions were not much better! A Director’s Cut was released in 1992 with the voice-over and ending removed, but it wasn’t until 2007 that Scott was finally able to produce his own definitive edit of the film.

‘A detective who does no detecting’

Although, arguably, it still has many flaws, including  a narrative pace that is too slow for some, questionable gender politics more representative of the 1970s than the 21st century, and problems with characterisation – Harrison Ford once caustically remarked that “I play a detective who does no detecting”  – this version of the film is now widely regarded as a masterpiece.

Blade Runner presents us with a world filled with darkness, perpetual rain and pollution, a literal descent into Hades. Yet, despite this grimness, the Los Angeles of 2019 (as conceived of in 1982) remains a place that is both visually compelling and and extraordinarily rich in detail. The film’s design team drew on many influences and styles to create this wealth of imagery. For example, using cues from traditional Hollywood Film Noir the characters are styled in the fashions of the 1940s and inhabit spaces that are reinterpretations of famous Art Deco buildings in Los Angeles, such as the Bradbury Building and the Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House. Syd Mead, a celebrated film designer, and his team then produced futuristic fixtures and fittings for the interiors. They also designed the technology, including the famous flying cars. As no sophisticated computer effects were available at the time, background scenes were added in the traditional way by blending matte paintings into the filmed elements.

Again, without the help of computers, the Blade Runner cityscape was meticulously constructed as a model. Great patience and ingenuity were then required by the special effects team to create the perspective and lighting effects, together with the haze and fiery industrial flares, which are so memorable in the opening scenes. The central features of this city model were the vast headquarters of the corporation specialising in genetic engineering, built in the form of a Mayan pyramid, and a recreation of a key building from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1929). Footage of the flying cars, giant aerial blimps and vast advertising screens on the sides of buildings had to be superimposed over the film of the model.

Influence of Dutch masters

In Blade Runner you can see the influences of other film makers such as David Lean and, inevitably, Stanley Kubrick.  Also evident is the influence of visual artists such as Edward Hopper and, perhaps more surprisingly, the Dutch masters of interiors Van Eyck and Vermeer. In one scene Deckard scans a treasured photograph belonging to one of the replicants through his police computer. The small image enlarges on his screen to reveal the interior of a room, with a painterly quality, bathed in sunlight. This place is like an oasis of calm in the dark cinematic storm going on all around.

On the wall there is a convex mirror reminiscent of The Arnolfini Marriage by Van Eyck. This mirror and its reflections are like an echo of the giant human eye and its reflections at the opening of the film. The machine then scans deeper into the photograph and reveals the  imagery reflected in this mirror – with a composition that looks like Vermeer’s painting A Maid Asleep. Then something mysterious and very subtle happens. For a moment the scanning device somehow appears to look around a corner in the photograph and so reveals a very significant clue about one of the replicant’s identities.

Blade Runner can be enjoyed simply as an action film, or as an escapist journey away from the medieval cobbled streets of Rye into a great neon-lit metropolis for two hours. But after the lift doors have decisively snapped shut in the final frame – a much better ending – and the thunderous chords of the Vangelis score fill the Kino you might choose to reflect on it, and so discover many intriguing questions and possible layers of meaning.

There’s a strange glow in your eyes: Sean Young and Harrison Ford