When director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, debuted in 1982, it was both a commercial and a critical failure. Few were interested in it and even fewer appreciated it. And it’s somewhat understandable.
Blade Runner is not a by-the-numbers Hollywood film, nor is it a thrilling science fiction adventure or horror movie like the majority of sci-fi films that dominated the box office in the ‘80s. Plus, its theatrical version was saddled with a lackluster voiceover and a tack-on shoddy ending that was in complete violation of the movie’s themes due to studio interference. Blade Runner isn’t a movie that fully sinks in the first time you see it either. Combine all of this and you can see why the film only began to grow in popularity years later.
Aided by Ridley Scott’s Director’s Cut in 1992, more and more people came to appreciate the many layers within the neo noir sci-fi film. Today, it’s considered one of the masterpieces of the science fiction genre, with Scott’s Final Cut putting the finishing touches on visuals and plot.
Blade Runner has had a major impact on both science fiction film and a wide variety of movies, television, and novels. The film is potent on many different levels – visuals, themes, characterization, dialogue, and imagination. These are the pillars of great science fiction.
In short, Blade Runner is my favorite science fiction film of all time, and one of my favorite films, period. It’s an experience that can have a lasting impact on viewers, and a movie that will continue to shape science fiction for years to come.
Blade Runner is a science fiction detective film, with both its storytelling style and tone putting it in the vein of film noir. The movie revolves around Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a retired Blade Runner living in Los Angeles in the year 2019. Blade Runners are designated detectives assigned to hunt down and eliminate rogue replicants. These are artificial humans that are stronger and faster than normal people created to do slave labor. Due to a rebellion on another planet, they are banned from living on Earth.
Deckard is called in by the police to hunt down four rogue replicants who have come to Earth looking for answers from their creators at the Tyrell Corporation. As he hunts them down, Deckard becomes intertwined with their lives and the life of a new replicant, Rachael, who was fooled into believing that she was human.
This idea of “future noir” combines the classic style of films from the 1930s and 1940s with the progressive ideas in science fiction. Unlike many other detective stories in film and novels, Blade Runner is not about the twists and turns uncovered when exploring a mystery.
What’s important to realize is that unlike other film noir stories, the mystery and investigation that are part of the story are not important. The film is about the characters, with Deckard, Rachael, and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the head of the rogue replicants, forever changing each other’s lives.
Like the best sci-fi, Blade Runner asks questions about humanity that can only be explored in a science fiction setting. Mainly, the film asks us to question what it means to be human and whether we are valuing our own lives and the lives of others as we should. This makes the film much more than just a detective story or a visually stunning piece of sci-fi moviemaking. Blade Runner seeps into your consciousness and lingers there.
A Bleak Yet Beautiful World
Blade Runner is set in Los Angeles, 2019 – a world where overpopulation and pollution have forever altered the landscape. The sun never seems to shine and it rains constantly. The nights are illuminated with the florescent glow of store signs and flying cars as bursts of industrial flame swallow up the distant night sky. All blues and blacks with brief flashes of orange. Gigantic electric ads are plastered across the sides of skyscrapers and blimps make sure that no L.A. citizen goes too long without a sales pitch.
There are mentions of off-world colonies, where adventurous humans can escape an Earth that is slowly falling apart. But Blade Runner never moves off the slick, grimy streets of Los Angeles. This future world seems bleak and dangerous, but also captivatingly beautiful. Combined with Vangelis’ synth-laden score, you can almost feel the rain and wind envelope you. In truth, this future L.A. doesn’t seem too far removed from our own.
It all feels so desperately lonely. A perfect backdrop for characters who are either clinging to what little life they have or wondering if they will ever find meaning in their own.
At the center of it all is the Bradbury Building, a real life Romanesque location in L.A. that serves as a major part of the movie and is the setting for its climax. During filming, the Bradbury Building was at the height of its decrepitude, perfectly matching the film’s consistent look of beauty filtering through urban decay.
Only flying cars (known as Spinners) and a few other pieces of technology really separate this world from ours. It’s an unfortunate truth that the grimy, broken-down future of Blade Runner is a much more realistic idea of what our world may become instead of the shiny, gleaming futures portrayed in so many other sci-fi films. In fact, it was this movie that inspired countless others to take a different approach to portraying how our future may look.
A Soundtrack to Score the Future
The score by Vangelis is just as important as any other aspect of Blade Runner. The mood that it sets for both quiet and thrilling scenes brings a far greater meaning to everything that happens. Much of the film is scored with synthesizers and chimes, with saxophone and vocals only occasionally breaking in. This idea of futuristic jazz makes the melancholic nature of the film truly sink in, enveloping all of your senses in beautiful loneliness.
Much of Blade Runner is quiet, with most of the characters having little to say. This gives the score room to breathe and merge with the cinematography at play. Vangelis’ score is subtle, it underscores the violence and character interaction to get to the feelings behind it all. It’s the opposite of what a composer like John Williams did with Star Wars or Hans Zimmer did with Inception. Those are great scores, but their feel would harm a movie like Blade Runner.
Every piece of music in the film is both futuristic yet classic at the same time. There are a few pieces that really encapsulate the feeling of Blade Runner while also standing on their own as beautiful music.
“Blade Runner Blues”
This is quite possibly the musical centerpiece of the entire film. “Blade Runner Blues” underscores a single lonely night for all of the characters involved in the story, each of them searching for connection and meaning in their own ways. The piece pops up twice in the film. First, as Deckard and Pris each separately search for connection, filling the rainy and steam-filled night with so much mood you can feel it under your skin. The piece begins once again as Deckard guns down Zora, the first replicant he kills in the movie. As Zora is shot repeatedly while running away, she twirls and breaks through multiple panes of glass in slow motion, finally coming to rest on the ground among broken glass shards that reflect a neon night. There’s no victory in Deckard killing her, only more loneliness. The scene is both beautiful and tragic, with Vangelis making it easily one of the best scenes in the film.
This piece feels like the most film noir of Blade Runner’s entire score. It’s the only time that saxophone is used in the entire movie, quickly filling Deckard and Rachael’s night together in the apartment with much more romance and sensuality. Like the film as a whole, the scene is not gratuitous and is quite low key. Vangelis’ work helps fill in the gaps with romance, danger, and eventually intimacy as the two characters fall in love with one another despite the dangers around them.
“Memories of Green”
This piece was actually recorded by Vangelis long before he was hired to score the film. But Scott loved it and felt as if it would be perfect for the movie. And it is! The lilting piano notes tie in perfectly with the piano at the center of Deckard’s apartment. The piece is gentle, combining the classical feel of a single piano with digital blips and other futuristic noises interspersed throughout. It’s an intimate piece for an intimate setting in the middle of the film.
“Blade Runner (End Titles)”
After close to two hours of mystery and ponderings over the human condition, Deckard has truly embraced life and his love for Rachael. Of course, this puts both of them in incredible danger. Together, they go on the run, with nothing guaranteed. The end title music has an appropriately dangerous feel to it. Booming drums and electric bolts from synthesizers create a much more energetic piece than anything during the movie itself. It’s perfect for imagining what the pair might face while reflecting on what Blade Runner really means.
Click here for Part 2, when I delve into the philosophical and emotional aspects of this amazing film!