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Blade Runner, written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples from the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, directed by Ridley Scott, 1982, 120 min.

Blade Runner has had an enormous, continuing influence on the field of science fiction, but was a difficult movie to make and was a flop on its release. At the time, its visual shorthand was so new that it didn't seem to have any other references; now, post-cyberpunk, post-millennium, it's like the natural state of affairs. And like other famous science fiction on film, notably 2001, Blade Runner makes points about its future by visibly reducing the humanity of its characters (or more specifically, its protagonist), another aspect that diminishes the movie's immediate appeal. The movie is based only loosely on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, I've always felt that this straying was to the best. I'll talk more about the ways that Blade Runner differs enormously from its source material.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter in a cramped, polluted, flashy, media-saturated future, where it's always raining and it's always dark. The movie deeply buries but still uses two key strands from the book: the absence of animals in this world, and the lure of the offworld colonies. Any way to get off this Earth seems like the purest sanity. The situation for those left on Earth is further worsened by the presence of rogue androids or replicants; the group of replicants that are the core antagonists in the movie have rebelled against their colonial masters and returned to Earth for a personal mission. The Tyrell Corporation created these Nexus-6 models and is responsible for their 4-year lifespan (deliberate or accidental; it depends on who is speaking), and the replicants are desperate to find out if this limit can be changed. In the book, the androids don't seem to have any reason to come to Earth; in the movie, the replicants become more sympathetic because of their entirely understandable mission. Deckard gets rehired by the police department because his colleague Holden gets shot up in the movie's opening scene; now, Deckard has to find and kill these androids who are trying to pass as human. The movie complicates matters with Rachel, who at first seems like an employee of Tyrell; Deckard discovers that she is a replicant who has been implanted with false memories and believes herself human. A relationship develops between Deckard and Rachel but it's not a typical Hollywood romance; as mentioned, the world of Blade Runner flattens out its inhabitants. Is this a survival tactic on the part of the characters and is it the only possible tactic? The movie makes it harder to make an estimation, because of how it loads our sympathies on the side of the replicants.

Dialogue in the film is distinctive, especially that of Leon and Batty, two of the replicants; some of the best dialogue was improvised on set, by the actors speaking from within their characters. "Wake up, time to die!" is one example, as Leon is beating up Deckard and wants to make sure he's aware of his doom. The famous dying speech of Batty was Rutger Hauer's contribution, a moving, emotional speech with surprisingly strong science fiction underpinnings. Batty, the leader of the group of replicants, is always fascinating, and his actions deliberately loaded with mythic significance. When Batty meets Tyrell, creation meets creator, it's like a canny recapitulation of every similar scene in the history of science fiction stretching back to Frankenstein. Too far, perhaps, is the scene where Batty saves Deckard with a nail-pierced hand. For me, Batty's defining moment comes earlier, at Chew's Eye Works. Batty and Leon are trying to find a way to get to Tyrell, and Chew is a scientist who has worked on the eyes of the Nexus models. Batty enters Chew's lab and says: "Fiery the angels fell, deep thunder roll'd / Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc." Batty is misquoting Plate 11 of William Blake's America; the first line should be: "Fiery the angels rose, & as they rose deep thunder roll'd." In Blake's poem, the angels represent the spirit of insurrection of each of the thirteen states before the American Revolution. Here, Batty inverts the sense of Blake, who was busy inverting the sense of organized religion ("Orc" is from the Latin word for hell, "orcus"). And since this comes from Batty, it also turns Dick's ethical hierarchy topsy-turvy.

Blade Runner forms almost the polar opposite morally of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, partly for the role of Batty as just discussed. Dick's book flirts with the mention that Deckard is an android himself, but this is essentially horrifying and Deckard remains the solid ground of the story. His love affair with Rachel is also treated much differently. In the book, Rachel doesn't help Deckard; later they do have sex, rather clinically, but they certainly don't remain together at the end. In the movie version, the replicants want more life, a credible motive, and the slight hope that Deckard and Rachel have together at the end is to take advantage of what time they might have. Much fuss has been caused by the question of Deckard-as-replicant, but I've always felt that, one way or the other, the movie has already made all of its important points.

Blade Runner represents the overwhelming triumph of the image. By this way of thinking about the movie, it's almost inevitable that the plot would be reduced to a chase-the-bad-guy outline and the characters flattened to cardboard; there's simply no room. Is the core problem of the movie storytelling? Scott has his triumph as an imagist, and the visuals immerse us in the world of the future to an almost unmatched extent. For example, the character of Gaff, one of Deckard's fellow police officers, is contained almost entirely in origami that he leaves behind at certain intervals in the plot -- a clever touch. But as semiotics tells us, the intent of any "sign" never quite matches its received message. Does Deckard understand Gaff? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Subsequent viewings of the film reveal ever-greater depth, but somehow the movie has to get us to trust it enough to put in that effort (another parallel between this movie and 2001; see my review of that movie for a similar discussion).

Ridley Scott had great difficulty making this movie; problems included lack of communication with the crew, a shooting schedule that went over-budget (and resulted in the producers gaining legal control over the movie), and a disastrous test screening that led to imposition of a voice-over and a happy ending. None of the stopgap efforts to make the movie palatable seemed to work, at least in the short-term; Scott had his revenge as the movie gained in enduring popularity and outlived most other movies of 1982. A Director's Cut was released into theatres in 1992, with the main changes being the dropping of the voice-over and the happy ending and the insertion of a dream sequence for Deckard (subtly indicating that he indeed might be a replicant). See below for a DVD note.

The soundtrack by Vangelis contributes to the movie's atmosphere in a memorable way.

Making-of Note: For those interested, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul M. Sammon (published by Harper Prism in 1996) will give you the complete history of the screenplay and its changes, an overview of conditions on the set of the film (not pleasant!), and the low-down on the many incarnations of the film that have existed. When Sammon discusses Blade Runner's poor box office performance, he makes some negative comments about E.T. (released at the same time as Blade Runner) which are unfortunate; in my opinion, both are good movies and were equally difficult to pull off. In the absence of a proper DVD edition, this book has the most information about the movie.

DVD Note: Blade Runner is currently available only in a bare bones edition on DVD; this DVD is so badly put together, it doesn't even have a proper chapter menu. The picture quality is sometimes distressingly low, and the currently available director's cut itself is something that Ridley Scott has always said was a rush job. A deluxe 3-DVD version was started but fell into in legal limbo (for updated info: BRMovie.com). The troubled genesis of one of the most influential science fiction movies continues to cause difficulties; I can only hope that work on a worthy DVD edition will resume soon.


First posted: October 14, 1997; Last modified: January 22, 2004

Copyright © 1997-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #1 | Reviews | Columns | Blade Runner | Philip K. Dick

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