William Cook

How Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, foresaw the way we live today

On the eve of the re-release of Scott's 'Final Cut' at the BFI, William Cook explores the thoroughly modern riddles at the heart of this cult movie

How Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, foresaw the way we live today
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In 1977 a journeyman actor called Brian Kelly optioned a science-fiction novel called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The book’s author, Philip K. Dick, had been writing science fiction since the early 1950s. He was 49 years old, with 30 novels behind him. He had a cult reputation, but he barely scraped a living. Kelly only paid him $2,500, but Dick was happy with this windfall. He’d written this book for half as much, back in 1968. After five more years, and many rewrites, Dick’s book finally became a film. Directed by Ridley Scott and renamed Blade Runner, it’s now commonly — and quite rightly — regarded as one of the greatest science-fiction movies ever made.

Now finally, after all this time, comes confirmation of the long-awaited sequel — directed by Ridley Scott, and starring Harrison Ford again, reprising his leading role as robot hunter Rick Deckard. Ford says the script is ‘the best thing I’ve ever read’. Will Scott’s direction be just as good? Here’s hoping.

In the meantime, if you can’t wait for Blade Runner 2 (or whatever they eventually decide to call it), from 3 April you can marvel at Scott’s original masterpiece on the big screen once again, as Blade Runner: The Final Cut returns to cinemas nationwide, courtesy of the BFI. Novelistic in its detail, operatic in its intensity, Scott’s direction still takes your breath away. Yet the most striking thing about Scott’s film — and Dick’s novel — is that they both foresaw the future. After all these years, Blade Runner remains an unforgettable experience. But since 1982 it’s become something else as well — a futuristic metaphor for the way we live today.

Dick delighted in making (almost) accurate predictions: nuclear meltdown in the Soviet Union by 1985 (Chernobyl blew up in 1986); artificial life by 1993 (Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997). Written half a lifetime before the world wide web, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? displayed similarly spooky powers of prophecy. Anyone with a Facebook page will recognise the creepy appeal of Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends, a never-ending chat show that broadcasts 24/7 throughout Dick’s novel. And anyone who’s searched for instant solutions to their problems in cyberspace (or been prescribed anti-depressants to boost their serotonin levels) will recognise Dick’s Mood Organ, a sly machine that conjures up all manner of emotions, from ‘awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future’ to ‘the desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it’. As Dick observed, ‘The greatest pain does not come zooming down from a distant planet, but up from the depths of the heart.’

Scott’s movie retained relatively few of these sci-fi specifics, but he preserved the book’s pervasive air of virtual paranoia — its inherent uncertainty about the boundary between what’s real and what’s unreal. Harrison Ford’s Blade Runner hunts down replicants who’ve become too human, and ends up wondering if he’s a replicant himself. Are his memories really his own, or were they implanted by a higher power? ‘It’s not just “What if...” It’s “My God; what if...”’ stated Dick, of his attitude to science fiction. Watching Blade Runner today, you can’t help wondering if his nightmares have come true. What is the meaning of memory, now everything is a click away on Google? Is the internet transforming us into replicants, incapable of proper empathy? Will anything be left of us, once our entire lives are online?

Initially, Dick was rather disparaging about Blade Runner (he called it ‘Philip Marlowe meets The Stepford Wives’) but once he saw a rough cut, he was won over by Scott’s film. He didn’t mind at all that the film was so different from his novel. ‘The book and the movie do not fight each other, they reinforce each other,’ he said. ‘The human brain craves stimulation, and this movie will stimulate the brain.’ Dick never made it to the première. He died of a stroke, a few months before the movie opened. He was 53.

Ridley Scott had had a big hit with Alien, and Harrison Ford had had an even bigger hit with Star Wars — but despite this winning team of hot star and hip director, the initial response to Blade Runner was tepid. Its first cinematic outing made a mere $14 million, barely half its production budget. The critics were underwhelmed. Janet Maslin of the New York Times called it ‘muddled yet mesmerising’, yet the intrinsic ‘muddle’ of Blade Runner is what makes it so mesmeric, then and now. The film (and the book) is built on an unanswerable conundrum. As robots evolve, at what stage do they become human? And as our lives become more and more computerised, at what stage do we start to become machines?

This thoroughly modern riddle is what gives Blade Runner its staying power, but such profound questions were far too tricksy for the film’s money men. The studio imposed various changes, including a corny film noir voice-over, in an attempt to explain away the film’s multiple complexities. Several alternative versions subsequently emerged, of which Scott’s ‘Final Cut’ is the finest, but even the Chandleresque original was a triumph. Scott said he wanted to make a film ‘set 40 years hence, made in the style of 40 years ago’. Thirty-three years hence, it still feels intensely contemporary. The only thing that’s dated is the computers — and the shoulder pads.

Fittingly, for a film about the perils of technological innovation, it was new technology that kept Blade Runner alive. Home video was the latest gizmo, and Blade Runner quickly climbed to the top of the rental charts. Movie execs may have been confused by its ambiguities, but movie buffs revelled in them. Within a year, the film had spawned its own fanzine. In 1983, the assembled nerds of the World Science Fiction Convention voted it the third best science-fiction movie of all time. Scott went on to direct a string of smart Hollywood hits: Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven… In 1992 he made the so-called ‘Director’s Cut’ of Blade Runner — actually a creative compromise between Scott and the studio. In 2007 he made the ‘Final Cut’ that’s now on general release again.

After Dick’s death, Hollywood finally woke up to the cinematic potential of his dark vision. A slew of adaptations followed. In 1990 Paul Verhoeven made Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, based on Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. In 2002 Steven Spielberg made Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, based on a short story Dick wrote way back in 1956, in his twenties, when he was just starting out. Spielberg’s film grossed more than $130 million. Dick’s original fee for this story was $130. ‘Often, people claim to remember past lives,’ he said in 1977. ‘I claim to remember a different, very different present life.’ Our robots may not be quite up to scratch — not yet — but Philip K. Dick’s Mood Organ is already with us. In the parallel universe of the internet, the different present life that he remembered is not so far away.