Blade Runner has aged like a fine wine, which is a rarity amongst effects-driven science fiction films. This is a look at several of the reasons why it has seemingly gotten better with age instead of worse.
Blade Runner is an odd case in the history of film. Here we have a movie that was widely misunderstood by both audiences and critics upon its release. It did marginal business in theaters, but ultimately failed to live up to the studio’s expectations. Critics dismissed it as mostly fluffy eye candy, and audiences wanted something more exciting. Despite these initial challenges, the film got a second chance.
Looking back at the same film today, the perspective has changed completely. Today, Blade Runner is widely considered a classic science fiction film. It has been elevated in status to quintessential viewing, and is featured on many critic’s best films lists. For today’s audiences, it is a consistent source of discussion and has infiltrated many levels of pop culture. Most impressive is the fact that Blade Runner has influenced so many other films. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Blade Runner is highly regarded by many important filmmakers.
Simply put, it is rare for perspective on a film to change as much as it has with Blade Runner. Films that aren’t immediately recognized for their creativity or proficiency are rarely revisited later on. This is a look at some of the reasons why Blade Runner has become such an exception.
The Timeless Production
Science fiction films aren’t known to be the most realistic. With a couple exceptions, they verge more on fantasy territory than realism. That’s part of the appeal; many of them are forms of escapist entertainment. Often times, they make wild predictions regarding the universe around us in order to be as captivating as possible. For many films, these predictions are made based on current scientific understanding (or lack thereof). Over time, these predictions may come to be dated due to scientific discoveries, or ideas that prove these predictions wrong or inaccurate. On the other hand, the world can develop slower than we thought it would, which makes these predictions feel even more fantastical.
All of these technological inaccuracies can impact the way we view the film today versus how it was viewed upon the initial release. If the film makes a prediction that science has since proven wrong, we as an audience have a difficult time suspending our disbelief for the sake of enjoying the film. If a film makes a prediction on a development too soon, it may feel more like magic than science whhich reduces perceived realism. Over time, science fiction films that rely on the audience investing in their realism can struggle as society evolves. Especiallly because they can often be defined by the predictions they make since those decisions can often move beyond themes and plot ideas to influence the story, costumes, settings, and even the characters.
Blade Runner has stood the test of time because some of its predictions have become more relevant over time. Yes, it’s true that the Blade Runner version of 2019 was ambitious, to say the least, but the central ideas it explores still ring true. We may not have flying cars and realistic-looking humanoid androids, but we still have concerns about the frailty of our species, and we still debate the logic of love. The technologies behind many of the advances and problems in the world of Blade Runner are also topics that are discussed regularly today.
And it’s not just a matter of the concept behind Blade Runner that keeps it relevant. Really, the entire production of the film is responsible for its continued relevance. First, it's just really well-designed. Futurist Syd Mead was responsible for much of the films' technological designs having timeless qualities. Even if some of the mechanisms for this future are fantastical, all of the details are really cool. Its evident that someone put a lot of thought into these details, and that really matters for a film to feel alive. Second, we all know that our near future won’t end up looking like a squeaky-clean utopia. Humanity is not inherently clean, welcoming, or adept at conditioning themselves for adversity. We have problems, and even in Blade Runner's 2019, we haven't figured them out. If anything, the film predicts our continued failures and difficulties as a species. Today, that rings true much more convincingly than a reminder of the things we've gotten right.
The Directors’ Cuts
When you hear the term “Director's’ Cut”, it’s easy to conjure up images of DVD’s with a few extended scenes and “special edition” highlighted on the front cover. It’s a ploy that most people can see right through, an effort to unload a few more sales on avid fans who might already own the original release. However, the Blade Runner director’s cuts are not like this at all. Instead, the director’s cuts of Blade runner fundamentally change the original product, even if the actual changes aren’t that severe. They aren’t just a few minutes of unnecessary run time added back into the mix. Both Blade Runner director's’ cuts were carefully thought out to improve the viewing experience of the original film.
The first directors’ cut of the film was released in 1992. It was developed as a result of Ridley Scott being unhappy with Warner Brother’s decision to screen a workprint version of the film in 1990. For this version of the film, Scott’s changes focused on removing some of the components of the original film that had been imposed by the studio. This included removing the voiceover narrations and restoring the ending to be ambiguous instead of happy. Ridley Scott also decided to add additional material regarding the identity of the main character, including a dreamlike sequence with a unicorn, and a climactic line by the supporting character, Gaff. These changes added fuel to the discussion on whether or not Deckard was a replicant, and in many ways created new interest in the film because people could view it from a new perspective.
The “second” director’s cut was the 2007 version, called The Final Cut. It is in this version that Ridley Scott had complete control (for the director’s cut, he only provided notes and consultation). This version of the film focused on removing errors, such as the cables for the spinner and editing actors’ faces onto stunt doubles. This version also included a number of extended scenes and sequences that were not previously included. These additional sequences are used to enhance the tone and the mood of the film by allowing more focus on the details of the setting and including more violence than before. Together, these changes may not have modified audience’s perception of the film as much as the first director’s cut, but they nonetheless brought renewed interest to the film. Furthermore, a detailed digital restoration allowed for a much better viewing experience, which we’ll discuss below.
Changing Audience Tastes
Blade Runner was based on the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is widely considered the first novel to exhibit "cyberpunk" tendencies. In 1982 when Blade Runner was released, "cyberpunk" did not exist. One of the most famous cyberpunk writers, William Gibson, was actually in the process of writing his first book, Neuromancer when Blade Runner was released. Gibson was distraught because the world of Blade Runner looked a lot like the world of Neuromancer. He feared that people would think he copied ideas from the movie. However, Neuromancer found a lot of success and its simularities to Blade Runner actually became an asset for both. Mainstream audiences misunderstood Blade Runner initially partly because it was a different type on science fiction. However, the style worked well in print and readers found much to love in Gibson’s book. Neuromancer would go on to win many prestigious science fiction novel awards, and basically started the genre of cyberpunk as we know it today.
Through the 80’s, cyberpunk as a genre grew from an underground fascination to something a bit more widespread. Other novels were released that borrowed heavily from Neuromancer and also happened to exist in worlds similar to the one seen in Blade Runner. By the 1990’s, other films such as Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity went into production to take advantage of the fascination with computers and rapidly advancing technology. The style went on to influence artists and filmmakers world-wide, including many anime series. Through it all, Blade Runner found a new attention. As fans found enjoyment in cyberpunk as a new wave of science fiction, Blade Runner now appealed to them in ways that its original audiences may have overlooked.
Impact of Current Events
When Blade Runner was released in 1982, dystopian films had not yet caught on. Movies like Logan’s Run, Fahrenheit 451, and THX 1138 made little impact on contemporary audiences. In 1982, science fiction was defined by Star Wars, which was an adventurous space opera. It was such a phenomenon that audiences craved more. Cheap knock offs were common and every studio wanted to make their own. In many ways, Ridley Scott’s previous movie (Alien) was a response to the original Star Wars. It seemed that executives saw a futuristic setting and were hoping that Blade Runner would fit the bill. Soon enough, they realized what type of movie this really was going to be and began to intervene, to the dismay of Ridley Scott. They changed the ending of the film to be happier and utilized advertising which highlighted the action sequences. Audiences therefore were expecting something more like Star Wars, but Blade Runner was not that. It was a different type of science fiction - slower, more cerebral. A critic famously called it “Blade Crawler” because of the pace. Instead of celebrating the film for what it was, Blade Runner was criticized for what it was not.
Today, dystopia is a popular draw at the box office and in print. Movies like The Hunger Games, and Wall E have brought this subgenre to the masses. With that type of proliferation, we’ve revisited older dystopian films like Blade Runner and found something to relate to. The reason that dystopian stories have become so popular these days is that the settings in which they take place seem more realistic than they did 30 years ago. Through the internet and advances in technology, people are simply more exposed to the world around them, for better and for worse. Dystopian stories are often seen of criticisms of existing conditions or perspectives in the world. As movie audiences (and readers) became more informed of the world around them, they found something to connect with in the way that dystopian stories covered topics that directly impacted them.
Because of this, we can also better appreciate the ideas of Blade Runner today than ever before. Consider the concepts of artificial intelligence and bioengineering, both of which play a major role in the creation of the film’s replicants. Since that technology is closer to being a reality today than it was back in 1982, we better understand the implications of their development. Indeed, with many famous scientists warning us of the dangerous potential of artificial intelligence, the idea of a rogue replicant seems like it has potential. This makes the film’s message an apt warning, rather than just dark fantasy.
Improvements in Technology
Cinematography is aspect of film that has benefited greatly from improvements in technology. In particular, high definition home release versions as well as remastered versions of old releases have really allowed a second perspective on the cinematography of older films. Blade Runner is one such film that has benefitted greatly with the improvement in playback visual quality over the years. This is especially true given the fact that Blade Runner found its fans more through home video than the original theatrical release.
Initially, Blade Runner’s visual tone was written off as murky and and soft. Foggy disposition was a stylistic choice that filmmakers used in the 80’s. This was due to the impact that MTV music videos and a new generation of commercial directors were having on the industry (of which, Ridley Scott was one). On VHS, the effect was even more fuzzy, and it gave the film an ambiguous quality. As you can see in the video below, it’s almost impossible to see the incredible detail and impressive design of the film while watching on VHS.
The transition from film to the digital realm has changed all that. In high definition, the film comes alive in a way that it never did before. Instead of a hinderance, the haze adds to the emotional texture of the film. It feels dense, and overwhelming. With better picture quality, we can also see subtleties in lighting that were not easily noticeable before. We can see the structure and definition of the sets and backgrounds, which gives the film a more realistic feeling. We can see background activity which makes the city come alive, and the film’s bright neon colors really stand out, instead of fade into the grey.