[Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.]
Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s visionary reworking of Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was a box-office flop. Maybe it was too dark for a public flying away on the fantasy of E.T. in the summer of 1982, or too downbeat for audiences looking for a Harrison Ford adventure romp.
Regardless, the film came and went from cinema screens, but it wouldn’t go away. It returned for midnight screenings and campus showings. It became a cult film, rediscovered on VHS and embraced by new fans. It colonized in the imaginations of writers, directors and die-hard fans of science fiction.
It’s been branded a “flawed masterpiece.” I won’t argue with that assessment, but what makes Blade Runner the greatest film of modern science fiction cinema is how the “masterpiece” side of the equation overwhelms how it may be “flawed.”
It’s an overwhelming, immersive experience, a total creation of a possible future so complete that you don’t need exposition to know how we got from here (either 1982 or 2007) to there (2019). You can see it in the architecture of the slums, where the future is built over the foundation of the past. You can see it in the pollution spewing into the eternal night of dark skies, the constant rain, the street culture of overpopulation and poverty. The city sprawls as far as the eye can see, a continent-wide slum with corporate castles towering over the grime. The only escape from this planet-wide urban blight is the promise of the off-world frontier advertised on ever-present floating billboards.
Into this hell on Earth arrive five replicants, slave clones created to have enhanced strength and dexterity and (in one case) intelligence but genetically stamped with limited life spans. They’ve returned to Earth in search of their creator and a reprieve on their biological death sentences.
Harrison Ford is the rumpled loner detective sent to hunt down the escaped replicants, walking the neon-lit, rain-slicked mean streets of this polyglot urban culture in a futuristic film noir. In the original release, he provided hard-boiled narration. Later versions removed the monologues (creating an eerier, more ambiguous atmosphere) and the tacked-on happy ending that made hash of the whole polluted-planet premise. But whatever incarnation of the film you prefer (and a new “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” DVD release offers five different versions), the film looks more prescient as we crawl toward 2019. The future is now.