Film: Blade Runner (1982)
Director: Scott Ridley
Producer: Michael Deeley
Screenwriters: Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples
Cinematographer: Jordan Cronenweth
Editor: Terry Rawlings
Principal Actors: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, and Edward James Olmos
Spoiler Alert: This page includes a synopsis that describes most of the plot. If you have not seen this movie, you might want to do so before reading this post. Otherwise, feel free to read it and watch it later for any feedback you might want to offer.
This movie takes place in the future and mostly at night. It starts by introducing the audience to the city of Los Angeles in 2019 with its vast spans of lights, blasts of flames, and flying transportation vehicles. After these establishing shots and an attempted murder scene, the camera floats down from above into street crowds and ends on the protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). The police enlist him to terminate four Replicants – genetically manufactured human androids – that have escaped and are trying to invade Tyrell Corporation. To locate the Replicants, Deckard becomes a detective and sleuths his way to the first who he brutally shoots in the back as she runs through panes of glass to her death. At this point, the voice over informs the audience that Deckard is starting to have feelings for the Replicants. This is a turning point and somewhat of a controversy about Deckard himself being a Replicant.
This is supported by juxtaposing the scene immediately after the first termination of Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) where Deckard sees beautiful Rachael (Sean Young), a Replicant, across the street. Shortly thereafter, she rescues him from another Replicant by killing his assailant. By this time, Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) – the last two remaining run-away Replicants – have nested with a path to the genius at the Tyrell corporation that might help them extend their lives. Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) is the genius who created the Replicants; JF Sebastian (William Sanderson) is the path to the genius. At the turning point where Roy confronts Tyrell for a fix to his short life, Tyrell tells Roy that “the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long;” Roy has done a lot in life but it cannot be lengthen. Then Roy kills his creator.
Deckard catches up with the action by finding and killing Pris. Roy returns to where Pris has been killed and finds Deckard where they battle each other through several rooms. This final battle climaxes in a savior scene where Roy “sees the light” and saves Deckard’s life. In the voice-over, the narration says, “I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life, anybody’s life, my life” (Trussel). Roy had learned that Deckard had a life to live although his own was gone. Deckard returns to Rachael and they leave Los Angeles to live out in the wilderness.
One important point to note is that there are several versions of this film. For this essay, I have chosen to use the US theatrical release (1982), as provided in the Four-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD package (2007). This version includes the Deckard voice-over narration and “happy ending” scene and does not include the unicorn dream scene. The happy ending scene occurs after Deckard returns from being saved by Roy. The following sections attempt to describe how this is very effective as a quality movie, even though subsequent releases improved on this quality.
In general, the interior shots are very monochromatic and the exterior shots typically have strong colorful lighting created from advertisements and neon signs. In a majority of the exterior scenes, the sky is dark, rain falls constantly, and the streets are crowded with people. In the interior scenes, there are large, medium, and small rooms; all rooms show strong lights shining through the internal air or flickering on the walls. The large rooms belong to the police, Tyrell, and Sebastian; the medium to Deckard; and the small to Replicants. External medium and close-up shots use high lighting with contrasting dark to create a three dimensional environment. Because of the dominant dark colors and shadows, this alone could be sufficient to classify the movie as film noir; however, it also fits this genre as a detective story using a narrator with honky-tonk piano and haunting sax solos. These are all similar to the film noir classics like the Maltese Falcon (1941). As the Film Noir Studies website says, “the people who made these films set out to create on the motion picture screen a different kind of world, and to provide it with a darker, more cynical interpretation” (Blaser). Ridley Scott accomplished this in a world of the future.
Ridley also enhanced this style by using extreme lighting techniques, such as silhouettes of characters in bright-lit backgrounds, unexplained flickering lights, and black-framed cameo shots. For instance, in the first termination scene, the Replicant lies dead on the floor lit by bright lights and neon while people continue to walk across the screen in silhouette showing the scene as immaterial to the characters on the street. In Tyrell’s office/home, there are light patterns flickering on the walls behind the characters but there’s no fireplace or other source for those lights. And when the filmmaker wants to show Deckard alone and longing, we see his face surrounded by darkness, as illustrated below.
Another technique Scott used is the wide-angle lens to show large spaces where the characters live. In the picture below, the audience can see the curvature of the lens in the doorways with Sebastian and Pris entering his apartment in the Bradbury Building. This shot shows the audience that he lives in a large dry part of the building after walking through the lobby dripping with water and littered with trash.
Another important point that Sammon’s book points out is that Ridley Scott used “layering” to create the environments on the sets. “Scott’s self-described techniques of building up a dense, kaleidoscopic accretion of detail within every frame and set of a film” (47). Scott told the author, “a film is like a seven-hundred-layer layer cake” (47). This clearly gives the image depth a realistic appearance and one that audiences believe is the future. In the photo above, these layers are shown in the right side door opening where Sebastian has collected hundreds of toys and genetically modified creatures.
1982 Mistake: The scene where Deckard dreams of the unicorn is not in this version. Because of this, there is no meaning in the end where Gaff leaves a unicorn origami at Deckard’s front door. The dream is to help prove that Deckard is a Replicant and that his dreams were implanted, something Gaff knew that Deckard didn’t.
Camera movements were diverse throughout the film and caused additional complexities to shooting the film because of the special effects. For instance, in the scene where the police flying vehicle is returning to the precinct building, the camera rotates clockwise on the miniature model while the flying vehicle, a Spinner, also turns as it lands on the top of the precinct building. This is created using miniature models and multiple motorized and synchronized camera exposures to create the final lifelike composition. This perspective gives the audience a feel of how it would be like flying in a Spinner and closer to the story.
In addition to these special effects shots, like the picture above, the camera movement is used to take the audience into several scenes as if they were there, in the story:
- The camera tilts down from the Union Station police precinct building in a long shot, down through the roof of a room, and stops inside a police walled office, as if the audience is sitting next to Officer Bryant.
- A dolly used to pan across the Bradbury Building pointing down from an upper floor as Deckard enters the lobby on the first floor.
- Camera pans Deckard as he nears Sebastian’s apartment then dollies closer to his back. When he hears a noise off camera, he turns quickly back looking just off the right side of the camera. This appears to pull the audience closer into the scene with Deckard.
- After Roy breaks Deckard’s littlest two fingers on his shooting arm, the camera shoots hand held and wobbles like an injured person illustrating his pain. It then gets cloudy like his vision is getting worse.
- Camera tracks Roy running up to jump between two buildings then cuts to below shot, over the shoulder of Deckard as Roy lands on the building above him, all in quick edits.
One nice touch of camera work is the use of slow motion when Zhora, the first Replicant, is killed. It is a classical scene of adding aesthetic as Guinnetti says Sam Peckinpah used in his movie The Wild Bunch, “By aestheticizing these scenes of ugliness, Peckinpah demonstrates why the men are so addicted to a life of violence when it seems so profitless.” In this case, Ridley uses the narrative to tell how Deckard has grown to question the genocidal killing, shooting a woman in the back, and his growing feelings for Rachael.
This movie uses elements from both Classical and Continuity editing. From the opening scenes of the cityscape vista, the camera closes in tighter and tighter until it lands in the office of the police interrogation. Thereby closing in from a broad perspective that ends up macro lens on the character’s eyeballs before a climax, this is a classical form of editing. Continuity editing occurs during sections of the film where the characters travel on the ground: Walking from the Spinner to the police office, Roy going to and returning from Tyrell’s office/home, and Deckard climbing the stairs to Sebastian’s apartment.
One of the interesting scenes in the movie is at a bar after a verbal confrontation with a mobster, who apparently owns the “joint,” Deckard is shown waiting during a thematic montage in the bar. During this montage, a lyrical passage of music and an announcer off camera play as we see audience members, performers, Deckard reading a newspaper, then finally the Replicant that Deckard is seeking. It is also in this scene where Deckard gives us an associational response to what he’s watching during the show. He turns away from the stage and covers his eyes from the show. Although this is a great acting device, it kept the camera from showing any of the performances but gave the audience the idea that it was not something they would want to see, and without showing it.
As for the editing style fitting the Soviet Montage (Formalist Theory) or Bazin’s Tradition of Realism, I believe it more closely fits the Soviet Montage because of the juxtaposition of the city from above into close-up shots of the characters and their activities. Throughout the movie there are dialectical synthesis and conflicts between the characters, their environment, and their desires. For instance, the creature seeks its creator to change the way it was created and live longer. This same conflict is inside humans who wish to extend their lives. When told it can’t be changed, Roy kills the creator. As this scene unfolds, the edits start with a long shot then slowly tighten in on the final kill close-up.
1982 Mistake: The scene where Roy enters the movie has a shot of Roy’s hand curled up in what appears to be pain. The edit is too long and reveals in a flash behind the hand that there is a nail protruding out the backside of his hand. This scene was obviously shot for later in the movie after Roy punches a nail through his hand to keep his hand functional.
The sound and music are the final sensual stimulation of the whole movie. In addition to the strong key and flickering lights, the sounds of machinery and other high-tech audio sounds continuously play in the background to remind the audience this is a future world. Some of these high-tech audio sounds are common sounds used today, such as telephone audio signals, radio frequency squeals, and synthesized sounds. One particularly eerie sound plays in the background of the shot below that sounds like a synthesized cat growl, giving the audience an insight into how dangerous Pris is.
A Greek musician named Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou created the musical score, using his artist name Vangelis. This score completes the masterpiece Ridley Scott sought to create. As Sammon says in his book, the score is “a dizzying mélange of unabashed romanticism, ominous electronic rumblings, gutter-level blues, delicate celestial shadings, and heartbreaking melancholy” (273). Sammon continues to describe Vangelis’s working methods as having “closely mirrored Ridley Scott’s own technique of ‘layering.’ The musician would first improvise the basic melody of each track, lay down that melody onto magnetic tape, and then refine it by piling other sounds and/or textures on top [of] the foundation track, working and reworking the resulting mass of music much like the way a sculptor kneads a lump of clay” (274).
1982 Mistake: The audio track is out of sync in the scene with Deckard and the snake salesman. Lips move but no audio talk and there’s talking without lips moving.
In another quality of this masterpiece film, the casting was perfect. Each actor fit the role as no other actor could fit. From Rachael’s gorgeous face and expressions to Harrison Ford’s Deckard stunning acting, these professionals made the audience believe in them as if they were real. In addition, Rutger Hauer delivered several classical lines that were brilliant, such as “if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes” and “all those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.”
Harrison Ford performs his diverse characters in the bar scene where he twitches his nose and snarls at the bar mobster. Then he proceeds to watch a show on stage and off camera but turns in disgust and hides his eyes from what he’d seen. When he finally gets to see Zhora in her dressing room, he plays a dorky agent and stutters when talking about lewd or repulsive acts to the naked beauty. Blade Runner was released following Harrison Ford’s star performances in Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and firmly established in the American Star System. However, these roles had given him public exposure but as Sammon writes, the “producer and director were in unanimous agreement that Ford had thus far been given ample public exposure as a personality, but little opportunity to showcase his true talents as an actor” (88). I believe he proved his lead talents and persona in this film.
Art Direction: Sets & Costumes
The art direction in this movie was spectacular and very realistic. Buildings were modeled based on historic architecture, such as Mayan pyramids for the Tyrell office/home (Shay 12) and the Chrysler building in New York for the Police Precinct Station (Shay 43). They also used existing buildings for internal shots, like the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles for Sebastian’s apartment (Sammon 138) and the Union Station for the Police Precinct Station (Sammon 118).
What is most engaging in this movie is the environment and cityscape that the production team created. Using forced-perspective models, the art department was able to create miniature buildings and fly vehicles within them to convince the audience that the scene was real. Andrew Laszlo defines forced perspective photography as “the relative size of something as it is compared to the known size of something else” (207). By creating realistic buildings in the set, the perspective of the other buildings and their details, like stairs or windowsills, “force” the audience to believe the size of the images around it. This was used extensively in the miniature sets where the camera floats and turns revealing the future environment and living conditions.
The matte paintings were amazing art direction and special effects accomplishments that have won and been nominated for several awards. As Sammon says in his book, “Puddles of painted water shimmer with reflected neon; streams of traffic jockey or position on distant painted causeways; Spinners soar into the frame, only to disappear behind a painted building and emerge again on the other side. None of these things are exactly revolutionary, but the sheer virtuosity with which two- and three-dimensional subjects are blended together represents what is probably the most bravura use of matte paintings in years – perhaps ever” (55). Of course today, this would be much easier and more efficient to use computer graphics and digital images.
In the photo below, the view out of the window is a rear screen projection into the set and completed using matte painting for the top of the view out of the window. In addition, the furniture and setting contains museum quality pieces to show the rich life of Dr. Tyrell.
Deckard’s apartment external and internal shots were also created using existing buildings and design. The outside of his apartment building is the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Los Angeles. As Ridley Scott said, “Decker’s apartment was great. It was Frank Lloyd Wright’s house exterior. Couldn’t shoot inside the house so Larry took casting of the walls” and made them into the walls inside Deckard’s apartment (22:10 minute mark, “A Good Start: Designing the Future” Chapter). The picture below shows the interior of Deckard’s apartment and the walls cast from the outside of Frank Lloyd Wright’s house.
The costumes in this movie are very well designed and are believable as much today as back when the film was first released. I would consider the period infinite because it fits the story well. Class is differentiated between the impoverished who wear rags and the high class such as Rachael. Her coats have high arching collars that make her appear royal. They appear to be Hollywood outfits, designed by fashion designers. Because she is only a couple years old, she unusually fits snuggly and beautifully in her adult clothes. The fabrics of her clothes are made from cotton and fur that appear to be custom made to fit her tightly and to accentuate her body. In one scene she has a high fashion, high-tech purse with a poignant graphic design that nicely and futuristically complements her dress. Rachael and Deckard wear earth toned colored clothes of tan, green, grey, dark blue, black, and white.
Deckard wears three shirts in this movie two being dark colored button down with a thin tie and the third in the glib happy ending where he appears to be wearing a polo shirt under a sweater. As Sammon states, “even a futuristic detective must have a trench coat, of course. According to the 1982 Blade Runner press kit, Rick Deckard’s outerwear consisted of ‘a new, oddly proportioned version of the traditional trench coat…a russet colored full-length cotton, with multi-pintuck collar, raglan sleeves, deep pockets, and French seams’” (112). He carries a futuristic terminator gun in a holster over his left buttock. Don Shay quotes Douglas Trumbull, Special Photographic Effects Supervisor, as saying, “Ridley wanted to have an unusual, futuristic gun…Why not make something that’s black? Instead of making light come out of the gun, make darkness come out. And rather than make things explode, have them implode – collapse – as though matter just vaporized and vanished into a void. It wouldn’t throw blood and gore all over the place – part of him would just vanish” (20). This was clearly shown in the Leon head blast scene after his battle with Deckard where the gunshot leaves a weird hole and residue.
The voice-over narrative in this version of the movie is one weakness in the quality of this version. By using a voice-over narration, it leans the narrative towards the formalistic narrative because “the design of the plot is not concealed but heightened. It’s part of the show. Formalistic plots come in a wide assortment, but usually they are structured according to the filmmaker’s theme,” (384) as Giannetti says. This style fits the film noir genre but in the end Ridley Scott removed all the voice-over because he wanted to have more realistic narrative and conceal some of the plot details.
The narrative is realistic, as the Giannetti textbook says, “Realists prefer loose, discursive plots, with no clearly defined beginning, middle, or end. We dip into the story at an arbitrary point. Usually we aren’t presented with a clear-cut conflict, as in classical narratives. Rather, the conflict emerges unobtrusively from the unforced events of the exposition. The story itself is presented as a ‘slice of life,’ as a poetic fragment, not a neatly structured tale” (383). The beginning of Blade Runner starts with the first murder in the Tyrell office. It is arbitrary because it is in the middle of the Replicant’s quest to infiltrate the office but the audience doesn’t know why. The Replicants have escaped and are killing people but the police are merely trying to terminate them so “no one’s ever going to find out they’re down here,” as Office Bryant tells Deckard (Trussel). As the Replicants are killed off, the audience learns that they are trying to get changed by their creator to live longer. This conflict is not clear-cut until late in the story.
The film does follow the classical paradigm as the action climbs to the climax and denouement. Again, the additional footage at the end of this version of the movie exposes another weakness in the narration: glib happy ending. Having exceeded the budget and run past deadlines, the producers wanted a happy ending for Deckard and Rachael. They drive off into the sunset as the camera glides through scenic views of the green surviving world outside dystopia, in stark contrast to the streets in the city. This happy ending is not realistic narrative and was removed to improve the quality of the final cut, released in 1992.
The film does not follow the classical three-act plot structure because the audience is not informed what the conflict is in the Replicants, just that they need to be stopped. The protagonist knows he’s up against a formidable foe but not why they are attempting to do what they are doing: infiltrate Tyrell corporation. As for the resolution, the last few scenes in the movie shows the audience that the antagonist finally changes and realizes he must stop killing and in fact save the protagonist. By this point, Roy just plays with Deckard as he tries to get away and survive. Roy becomes the savior and rescues Deckard from falling to his death.
1982 Mistake: Deckard gives a voice-over narrative throughout this version of the film. It becomes annoying to the audience as it repeats what’s displayed on the screen instead of leading the story forward. In the Director’s Cut of the film, released in 1992, the narration is removed and is replaced with silence that gives the movie its poetic and lyrical mood.
Box Office and the Long Tail
This movie was not a financial success when it was first released. As I have listed mistakes above for this 1982 release, it appears audiences didn’t find the movie as a blockbuster; it only grossed “$14 million during its initial theatrical run…it is not exaggerating to describe Blade Runner’s maiden appearance as a resounding financial flop, a situation which, under normal circumstances, would have ended the Blade Runner story right there” (Sammon 318). As Tom Southwall, Production Illustrator, said, “Everybody was expecting a heroic follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark or a Starwars and the way it was advertised on television with only the visual effects shots of the flying car over a futuristic city and sort of a fight sequence doesn’t prepare you for the dramatic emotional side that there is in the film. It leaves you sort of broken” (7:30 minute mark, “To Hades and Back: Release and Resurrection” Chapter).
Back during this time, Warner Brothers was rereleasing films into the cable and later VHS markets. As Sammon says on the Dangerous Days DVD, when the audience “could actually manipulate the film just as Deckard manipulates the photograph, then they recognized what an accomplishment it was and then the buzz started to gather” (16:42 minute mark, “To Hades and Back: Release and Resurrection” Chapter). These releases grew a cult of followers by an audience that would not have necessarily watched a science fiction film in a theatre (Sammon 322). Afterward a few years, the film became a hit for small theatres and festivals. This grew slowly over the years until Warner Brothers got involved in expanding the theatre screenings that generated hundreds of thousands of dollars, with little marketing expenses (Sammon 340).
After a few years of negotiations, a second release in 1992, called the Blade Runner Director’s Cut, received a lot of press about both the new release edits and about inside stories from the first release. This reinvigorated audiences to go see it again. According to Sammon, “By Mid-October, the Director’s Cut was screening in ninety-five theatres, and the film hovered within the top-fifty grossing motion pictures in the United States for a ten-week period…[it] was then booked for screenings throughout Europe, Japan, and Australia, where it met with similar success” (368). Chris Anderson writes of the difficulties for getting films, much less a re-released film, into theatres in his book when he says, “The ‘carrying capacity’ of the U.S. theatrical industry is only about 100 films a year. The economics of local movie theaters are cruel and unforgiving. It’s not enough that a film be good or big in Bombay. It’s got to be big enough in Stamford, Connecticut, or wherever else a theater happens to be, to pull more than a couple thousand people through the door over a two-week run” (128).
Obviously the Blade Runner movie gained an audience of aficionados that were able to revive and propel it back into the global culture. For a masterpiece and cultural icon, Blade Runner will continue to have a long tail in the market, as it was again released on DVD and Blu-ray and in four different editions in 2007. It has since been included in the American Film Institute’s in the 2007 edition of the document as 97th out of 100. In June 2008, the AFI awarded Blade Runner the number 6 slot in the top 10 Sci-Fi genre. “To pay homage to the 10 revered genres, AFI enlisted film artists associated with each category to count down the top films, while providing their unique insight on each” (1). The letter continues, “’AFI’s 10 TOP 10 will serve as the ultimate guide to the very best in 10 of America’s most beloved film genres,’ said AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale” (2).
- American Film Institute, 100 Years 100 Movies, 2007, pdf.
- American Film Institute, AFI’s 10 Top 10 – Host Announcement, 2008, pdf.
- Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Hyperion, 2008, Print.
- Blade Runner: Four-Disc Collector’s Edition, Disc 2: Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, The Blade Runner Partnership, 2007, DVD.
- Blaser, John J. and Stephanie L.M. “Film Noir And The Hard-Boiled Detective Hero.” Film Noir Studies, 2008, Web.
- Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies (11th Edition), Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008, Print.
- Laszlo, Andrew. Every Frame a Rembrandt, Focal Press, 2000, Print.
- Sammon, Paul M. Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, Harper Collins Publishers, 1996, Print.
- Shay, Don. Blade Runner: The Inside Story, Titan Publishing Group, 2000, Print.
- Trussel, Steve. Blade Runner Transcript, Trussel.com, unknown publish date, Web.