The long shadow of ‘Blade Runner’
On 6 October, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, probably the most anticipated film of the year, will release in theatres. It’s hard to believe that the film it’s a sequel to—Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—has turned 35. Perhaps this is because its cyberpunk-meets-neo-noir palette is still being borrowed and its gritty approach retrofitted to whichever future-shock scenario Hollywood turns its attention to next.
Starring Harrison Ford as a grizzled ex-cop who hunts down bioengineered beings called “Replicants” in a neon-lit Los Angeles of the future, Blade Runner was a rare ‘80s Hollywood movie that operated in a commercial vein but was still arrestingly strange.
Novelist William Gibson, a third of the way into writing his own sci-fi classic Neuromancer when the film released, saw it and decided he “was sunk, done for. Everyone would assume I’d copped my visual texture from this astonishingly fine-looking film.” He later told The Paris Review: “It affected the way people dressed, it affected the way people decorated nightclubs. Architects started building office buildings that you could tell they had seen in Blade Runner. It had had an astonishingly broad aesthetic impact on the world.”
Here are some ways in which Blade Runner changed the face of pop culture.
Providing the template for dystopian sci-fi cinema
Few major Hollywood sci-fi films after Blade Runner have been spared from its influence. The DNA of Scott’s film can be seen in Gattaca, The Fifth Element, Strange Days, Dark City, the Matrix trilogy, Ghost in the Shell (both the 1995 anime and the live action version released this year) and a dozen or so others. Steven Spielberg, who adapted Dick’s Minority Report and whose A.I. Artificial Intelligence has several sequences reminiscent of Blade Runner, said in a 2002 interview to Wired: “I thought Ridley painted a very bleak but brilliant vision of life on earth in a few years. It’s kind of acid rain and sushi. In fact, it’s coming true faster than most science fiction films come true. Blade Runner is almost upon us. It was ultranoir.”
Inspiring a generation of anime creators
Unsurprisingly, given Scott conceived its battered neon cityscapes as “Hong Kong on a very bad day”, Blade Runner has had a deep influence on anime—evident in classics like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. “When you create a film dealing with humans and cyborgs, you have no choice but to refer back to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner,” Oshii said in 2004 interview. This influence has now come full circle, with Shinichirō Watanabe, creator of the seminal late-‘90s anime series Cowboy Bebop, directing an anime short, Blade Runner Black Out 2022. “Blade Runner was definitely the movie that influenced me most as an anime director,” Watanabe says in a preview trailer. The film was released online last week and can be viewed on YouTube for free.
Predicting future tech
Blade Runner may have looked like a wild sci-fi fantasy in 1982, but several of its technological leaps are close to becoming reality. Airborne cars must have seemed like an impossible dream back then, but there are a handful of companies attempting to manufacture flying cars today, and delivery drones are a partial fulfilment of this prediction. The giant digital billboards in the film predate the Jumbotrons of today. There’s the equivalent of a video call that Harrison Ford’s character makes. And the question of the “humanity” of artificial intelligence that runs through Scott’s film is an idea that is being explored in very real ways today.
Cementing the legend of Philip K. Dick
Though he wrote a screenplay in 1974 based on his novel Ubik for a film that was never made, Dick’s visions never made it to the big screen until Blade Runner opened in 1982. After that, there’s been a steady stream of filmed adaptions of his novels and stories: gritty, eye-popping action movies like Total Recall and Minority Report, thrillers like Paycheck and The Adjustment Bureau and—my favourite—the rotoscoped madness of A Scanner Darkly. Lately, his work has been adapted for TV as well, in The Man in the High Castle and Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. This constant mining of his oeuvre (and Hollywood’s fondness for the reboot) has meant that Dick’s reputation as a sci-fi savant has remained more or less constant for three decades.
Mainstreaming the director’s cut
Google “Blade Runner director’s cut” and you’ll find at least a dozen links dissecting which version of the film you should watch. There are eight known versions of the film (and a legendary four-hour version that’s never surfaced), from the Workprint Prototype and US Theatrical Release versions of 1982 to the 1992 Director’s Cut (a misnomer—Scott didn’t have complete control) to the 2007 Final Cut (the one version Scott is presumably happy with). Some are subtly different, others markedly so (Ford’s voiceovers—for many, a key element of the neo-noir mood of the film—are missing from the director’s cut). The idea that different versions of a film are worth scrutinizing and hotly debating, not to mention the later sanctifying of the director’s cut as a DVD staple, was arguably brought out of the arthouse arena and into the mainstream by Blade Runner and another sci-fi film that followed on its heels, Brazil.
Blade Runner 2049 releases on 6 October.
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