Steam and fire rises from spires that would induce envy in the Tower of Babel. A world bathed in cold electric light drenched in rain. Humanity has had its meaning challenged and a whole system has risen to maintain the traditional world and meanings. It’s a time that feels all too familiar and yet so far flung.
Blade Runner is weirdly foundational for me. Weirdly because I didn’t see it until I was in my late high school years, after a lot of foundation work had been already done. But I’d grown to love its progeny. Not just Dark City, 12 Monkeys, Ghost in the Shell, and The Matrix, but the games like Shadowrun, Perfect Dark, and the countless future-noir and cyberpunk books that filled the days of my youth. Loving the font from which they poured seemed only logical, not even reaching the fact that I think Blade Runner does it better than any of them do.
It’s interesting that Blade Runner can stand here given that it took one of the most circuitous paths to the film canon…ever. Not just standard “maligned its day but hailed later as undiscovered genius” but rather that its first version, the Theatrical cut, is actually hard to consider great. It’s not bad by any means, the film wouldn’t have the reputation it did if it was unwatchable there.
But it’s marred by a completely tonally-jarring happy ending, one that essentially rewrites major emotional chunks of the film, and Harrison’s Ford “gun-to-my-head” noir voiceover. Seriously, the studio forced him to do one like the old film noirs and Harrison Ford protested the idea by reading it with the tone of a teacher reciting the same test prep lesson for the fifteenth year in a row who just wants to get home and drink.
You should be checking out the horrible voiceover in the clips above, but through that I hope something else starts to peak through. Even in something I show you to illustrate a major flaw, the sense of design and beauty and grace this film has in its construction begins to become clear. This is a sci-fi flick that brings the big thinking that so often seems only possible in the medium as literature and gives it a cinematic power difficult to match.
They fixed all those problems in the later cuts anyway. By The Final Cut, Blade Runner had stricken the mistakes and the fat and come into its true powers. So, I suppose I’ll bury down in the middle of this article that its place on this list is with the caveat that my preferred version is The Final Cut, though even the flawed Theatrical version would have a place in at least the top 20.
Why? I mean, there’s a whole host of reasons. The phenomenal performances, including Harrison Ford’s hardscrabble Decker and Rutger Hauer’s beautifully complex and empathetic Roy Batty. The impeccable design aesthetic, one that would have a ripple effect on the world of sci-fi surrounding and following from it. Ridley Scott’s sure directorial hand, proving how amazing he is when he’s able to tell someone else’s story.
But I think for me, all the above and so much more rests in a single simple scene:
If you know anything about this film, you saw this coming. This is the film’s most famous scene by a long shot and with ample reason. It’s beautifully acted and written and hits right at the heart like few other genre moments were ever able to. It uses every bit of aesthetic power Blade Runner has, the gentle neon glow and the hard rain falling underscoring and making something beautifully hypnotic out of it. That delicate Vangelis score. The absolute straight-facedness of the genre tropes peeling back a peak into a world that we could never know and that we only here get a brief glimpse of. It’s a moment that digs it way in and sparks the imagination.
It also digs into what the film has to say in perhaps the most potent way. Blade Runner is a film about humanity and what specifically makes us human. I don’t mean the qualities of humanity, rather what gives us necessarily the right to call ourselves human and is that something that is replicable?
In the whole of this film, Deckard is hunting down Batty for being a nonhuman that has dared to return to Earth and live among us, a crime because he is not one of us. The “Tears in Rain” speech shows how little difference there is, and that moreover, he has had experiences and memories that we never could. What necessarily makes him less human or not deserving of his humanity? Moreover, what necessarily makes us?
It’s a shallow shot, I know, but it’s because in these pieces, I want to give you a fraction of the depth and beauty that these films at their best can be. See Blade Runner and take in its ideas and its grace and power. it’s the best that art can be, to find what it is to be human.