Originally released to a very mixed reception, Blade Runner has been a polarizing film from the get-go. Now, thirty five years (and more than a handful of recuts) later, Blade Runner has cemented itself as one of the most talked about and scrutinized science fiction films of all time. And it’s certainly important–the striking visual style was way ahead of its time, and the story (in all its forms) touches on interesting themes and continues to be a hot topic of discussion years after its release. It is also a bit of a mess, home to numerous production problems, important people not getting along with each other, and studio imposed endings. So have the decades of study made it a better film? Well, yes and no. It’s complicated.
Let me get this out of the way now. I want to like Blade Runner. I don’t hate it, far from it, but everytime I sit down to watch it I end up feeling as if I should like it more than I do. For every aspect I appreciate, there is almost always some element that leaves my scratching my head. The more I thought about this, it finally dawned on me, everything I feel about this film, good or bad, boils down to one thing. Or, more aptly, one person.
Ridley Scott has had quite the career as a director. For every Alien and Gladiator, there has been a Kingdom of Heaven and G.I. Jane. He is like a living embodiment of Newton’s third law. But if there’s one thing that is a constant in his filmography, it’s that the man knows tone. Even when the narrative is kind of a mess (the less spoken about Prometheus, the better), the tone and atmosphere have been spot on. And nowhere is that more true than in Blade Runner. Visually, the film is iconic. It’s dystopian and noir elements are so well done that it became the visual template of cyberpunk going forward. The now classic take on futuristic Los Angeles is both exhilarating and chilling, a future that is simultaneously awe inspiring and terrifying. One cannot understate how important this film is from a visual and technical standpoint.
But for everything that the look of the film gets right, the messy narrative gets in the way. It’s never a good sign when the lead actors, director, and screenwriter all have different ideas about if the main character is actually a human or replicant, with each choice changing the meaning of the film dramatically. Personally, I am in the camp that Deckard was a human, the ending has a lot more weight to it that way. Don’t like it? That’s fine, Scott is with you and one of the seventy five different edits will have the ending that suits your vision. My personal favorite is the one where Scott took unused footage from another of his films and inserted it into the end of Blade Runner because that was clearly his vision all along. When the creative forces behind the film can’t agree on what the film is actually supposed to be, I can’t help but look at it as anything other than severely flawed. If the intention was to leave it open to interpretation, that is fine, but all the recuts and tweaking make me think that’s a load of shit and Scott knows the film needs work.
On an academic level, Blade Runner is ace. The visuals, music, and some of the performances are all top notch. It was a risk, a slow art house film with big names and big ideas. But no matter how many times it is recut, there always seems to be something missing. Add a voiceover to explain things, remove it later because it’s too hamfisted (and Ford hilariously half assed it). The changing of endings. All of it adds up to a film where the driving force behind it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Or he does and it can’t retroactively fit his vision given the material available. Either way the end result is nothing short of a beautifully made, important mess. A mess that will continue to be talked about for a long, long time.