Blade Runner: How Its Problems Made It a Better Movie
You love Blade Runner because it's a hot mess. It overcame problems, oddities, and a difficult production to become a masterpiece.
If you think Blade Runner is a masterpiece, you’re right. But, if other cool movies are like obedient robots—dutifully executing exactly what the filmmakers wanted—then the metaphor for Blade Runner’s awesomeness can be found in its rebellious replicants. This is a film that tried to destroy itself in nearly every conceivable way and that’s why we love it so much.
When science fiction is considered “good,” it’s often because its messages are contrary to the status quo. If cool and resilient science fiction were a person, it would be the opposite of someone who is “basic.” Philip K. Dick—the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? upon which Blade Runner was based—is about as far away from basic as you can get. In the documentary On the Edge of Blade Runner, we hear Dick in his own words say that “The American people are basically anti-intellectual.” Next up, science fiction author Brian Aldiss asserts that “Dick wrote against the grain of what was currently [then] accepted in science fiction.”
If science fiction writers are inherently a species of contrarians, then Dick—by Aldiss’ estimation—was an iconoclast even on a planet of iconoclasts. Still—call it brilliance or call it testiness—Dick had a hard time dealing with screenwriters. Hampton Fancher, the primary screenwriter of Blade Runner, referred to Dick as being overly “theatrical” and mentioned that the author was someone who believed “he was getting messages from God.”
Fancher is hardly alone in believing Dick was known for theatrics, nor would the author necessarily disagree with the fact that he’d been contacted by intelligence from “beyond.”
I’m not here to answer the question of whether Dick did or did not telepathically bro-down with aliens, because such an essay would be millions of words in length, which is time better spent just reading Dick’s awesome books. The point is neither Fancher nor director Ridley Scott thought the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was particularly good. Instead, they believed there was a marketable and even mainstream film hiding in its pages. Even before it started filming, Blade Runner was at odds with the very thing which allowed it to exist at all: Dick’s original novel.
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In the climax of Blade Runner, the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) breathlessly tells Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard that “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe!” And when you start researching everything about this movie, you begin to read and see things you wouldn’t have believed either. Stars Ford and Sean Young (who played the replicant Rachael) hated each other. The crew hated Ridley Scott. After throwing numerous fits, Dick wrote a letter saying the movie was awesome. Scott almost signed up to make a totally different movie, Dune.
Chronicling the entirety of the tricky production of Blade Runner has been done rigorously in numerous books, articles, and documentaries. And though I’m tempted to re-type word for word everything Paul M. Sammon writes in his book Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, I worry that he’d come track me down and accuse me of being a replicant.
So, go read Sammon’s book, but here’s the TL;DR version of why the production of Blade Runner was so infamous: the filming shoots ran late, Scott wasn’t accustomed to the union rules of American film crews, and he wasn’t in a great frame of mind because his brother Frank Scott had just died. Plus, various studio heads were furious with Scott for going over budget, while Fancher’s original script was re-written numerous times by numerous people before, after, and during production. In the documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, Ford says the physical conditions and the dreariness of the movie were a “bitch.”
Blade Runner seems like it needed conflict. Perhaps it’s in the whirling conflicts and contradictions where Blade Runner’s unique energy and crackle is so keenly felt. In writing about the workprint of the film in Future Noir, Sammon said, “Blemishes do not throw the viewer out of the frame. On the contrary, they somehow make Ridley Scott’s sullen, depressive mood piece more quirkily alive.”
Sammon is mostly writing about technical imperfections in one particular cut of the movie and using it as a metaphor for thinking of Blade Runner’s difficult production in general; its blemishes are what make it what it is. In Dangerous Days, screenwriter Fancher puts it like this: “The chaos of that production, everybody hating it—people don’t want to be in movies after they worked on that movie—all those things informed [the film] in a magical way…”
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The imperfections and cinematic schizophrenia of Blade Runner are what makes it wonderful and that wonderfulness has driven me and a millions of other fans terminally mad. But, like any artistic legend, the details surrounding the art are often misconstrued, misinterpreted, or biased because of a certain focus.
We sci-fi fans have been called obsessive a lot over the years, which often manifests itself as an extraordinary attention to detail. We need to know it all! And yet, sometimes we involuntarily tell ourselves stories that make the story of the art we love easier to process. In Blade Runner, humans can be discerned through their “blush response” to certain stimuli, specifically, as Dr. Tyrell says in the movie, “An involuntary dilatation of the iris.” Fans have this blush response too, things we do on accident, like getting really mad about Ewoks or obsessing over the “fact” that the voiceover in the theatrical release of Blade Runner totally sucks.
The great voiceover debate is a perfect synecdoche for debunking nearly all discussions about Blade Runner. Before I read Sammon’s Future Noir, I believed the facts concerning Ford’s sleepy narration were cut-and-dry. Simply, that Scott was forced by the studio to slap on the voiceover in order to make the movie more comprehensible to an average moviegoer. Broadly, this is true-ish. But as Sammon reveals “…it was Scott who pressed for the narration in the first place.” Fancher corroborates this in the book, saying, “Scott was after the feel of a ‘40s detective thriller, so he liked the idea of using this film noir device.”
So, what’s the deal? How could a voiceover be both forced upon Scott and also his idea?
The answer is there were two other voiceovers that were never used and Scott appears to have changed his mind numerous times during production. The narration that was used in the initial theatrical release of the film—the one that Ford hated—was the third one recorded at a point when the studio required it.
Sammon also writes that the idea that the voiceover is universally derided is a “fallacy.” Voiceovers might not be bad except of course when they are badly written and poorly performed, which is universally considered to be true in the case of the Blade Runner voiceovers from the theatrical cut. But, in Future Noir, producer Michael Deeley asserts the only reason you can be happy with the lack of voiceover is because we, the fans, have been given the option of a version of the movie without it: “It’s important to remember when talking about this issue, that when the ‘Director’s Cut’—quote unquote—came out 10 years later, everybody said, ‘My God, it’s so much better!’ But that opinion was expressed by people who had already seen the picture with the narration.”
So, do you really hate the voiceover in the original Blade Runner, or is it a fan-ish effect? Did you dream of a unicorn last night? Were you programmed to dream of it?
In Future Noir, Sammon cites a reader’s letter to People Magazine dated August 1982 in which a fan named Mr. Bryd calls People’s negative review of Blade Runner “unfair” and stating, “Blade Runner will no doubt end up a cult movie. Its one error was to present too much for the average viewer.” Sammon gleefully points out that if the “pithy prescient letter… had been written in 1992, its insights would be unremarkable.” But now, the majority of mainstream film buffs—whoever they are—accept and agree that Blade Runner is not only a cult movie, but a classic one.
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It’s in the inherent identity crisis where Blade Runner becomes its most imperfectly perfect. Even its name—Blade Runner—isn’t taken from Dick’s novel. Instead, it’s lifted from a William S. Burroughs novella weirdly titled “Blade Runner: a movie,” which is in turn, a proposed adaption of another novel called The Bladerunner by lesser-known science fiction author, Alan E. Nourse. Not only is the movie Blade Runner a hodgepodge of conflict masquerading as a slick confident masterpiece, but the popularization of the term itself is a crazy transmogrified entomological chimera. It’s a phrase that has power and represents the movie without having to explain it.
What does “Blade Runner” mean to us now? Certainly not what Burroughs or Nourse intended, and since Dick didn’t come up with it, not what he intended either!
In The Blade Runner Experience, Will Brooker wrote, “In 2003, Blade Runner became a verb,” after citing author William Gibson’s description of a dilapidated building having been “blade runnered.” Films have power, but when the words that describe those films become more than the movie and greater than the sum of their linguistic origins? That’s alchemy.
In her comedy album Bangs, Ophira Eisenberg tells a story in which a loony vagrant on the subway train approaches her crazily and asks in a hushed tone, “Are you… a…Blade Runner?” But maybe hardcore fans of Blade Runner aren’t all that crazy, because the love of this movie is clearly one of those instances where a cult classic slowly transforms into a reliable crowd-pleaser. Blade Runner was not a hit, critically or commercially, at all. But now it’s considered one of the best science fiction movies ever made.
Dick actually has a short story which perfectly represents this fascinating adaptability of challenging stories called “The Preserving Machine.” In it, beautiful pieces of music are intentionally transformed into deadly animals in order to preserve them in an inhospitable world. Which is exactly what happened to Blade Runner, over and over again.
Writing for The Guardian in 2015, Michael Newton reminds us that “there is not one Blade Runner, there are seven.” All the numerous versions and cuts and the controversies surrounding each iteration add to this movie’s unique status as being more than just one movie. Dick’s monsters from “The Preserving Machine” are real: cult films like Blade Runner (or Mad Max, for that matter) evolving into resilient pop culture survivors.
Calling a movie “a phenomenon” is boring and rote. Blade Runner is something else. It’s a sentient film which comments on its own premise. What does it mean to be human? Is Deckard a replicant or a “real” person? Which version of Blade Runner is the real one?
Thankfully, even Blade Runner doesn’t know.
Ryan Britt is the author of the book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths (Plume/Penguin Random House). You can find more of his work here.