Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi Blade Runner (1982) begins with a dazzling yet hellish vision of a metropolis shrouded in smog so thick that the sun has disappeared from the sky. Is it day or is it night? Giant towers of industry belch fire and pyramid-like structures sit like thrones over an urban landscape of monstrous magnitude. It is a seminal moment for modern sci-fi cinema because nothing so majestically awful had ever been committed to the screen. Here is a depiction of urban planning not as an outlandish cinematic imagining, but closer to a devastating environmental prophecy of things to come if we don’t get our act together. It has been said that Los Angeles is a city in search of a centre.
But, in this instance, the urban sprawl is a fever dream: a Piranesi sketch meeting a William Blake hallucination. The opening title card should really read: ‘Lost Angeles, November 2019’. In a single establishing shot Future-Noir was born. Scott is a preeminent universe builder and one of his very best creative attributes, as a film-maker, is the mastery of mise-en-scène. The director once spoke of his wish to be the John Ford of sci-fi movies. Alien (1979) was a massive success and became an instant classic. Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick source material but lifting its title from a 1974 Allan Edward Nourse novel, took almost ten years to gain appreciation. After a tense shoot and messy post-production – including disastrous test screenings – the film bombed.
So what is Blade Runner about? Taken as a story of a detective/assassin falling in love with a robot, and recognising that their understanding of humanity outshines human beings, the film is a journey toward moral and spiritual enlightenment in a frightening techno age, where a tentative grip on the delineation between real and unreal is slipping all the time. But if Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant, Blade Runner is less a journey narrative and more about an epiphany shared between two synthetic creatures. As Rachael’s near- Cartesian line puts it: “I’m not in the business. I am the business.” Scott’s use of fairy tale beats and motifs also added an extra layer of poignancy and symbolism. These abandoned techno-Pinnochios yearn to transcend and combat an early death that was pre-programmed into them to stop such nonsense from occurring in the first place. Blade Runner is at its best when focused on the replicants, their desires, desperation and melancholy. Like all of us, they want more time to live and to love. The question of authenticity, of their origins, and their nature, however, dooms them in the uncaring eyes of the law and society. Tyrell’s proud company slogan, ‘More human than human’, boasts a cruel and painful irony.