In the 32 years since its release in 1982, Blade Runner has set the standard of excellence for science fiction films. Its penetrating stylishness and perpetual freshness are qualities that make it almost unique in the genre, and it has influenced not only other science fiction films and music videos but also video-games, architecture, set design, fashion, products, and advertising. Like many of the greatest films, Blade Runner’s production was a long and torturous process that nearly derailed on more than one occasion. Its filming and director Ridley Scott’s single-minded pursuit caused strife among the crew and exhaustion among the cast. It went over-budget and was nearly shut down – in fact at the end of principal photography the financial backers laid everybody off including Scott. Harrison Ford stated it was the worst experience of his career. Yet it is often listed among the greatest films ever made, and was voted first place among 100 science-fiction movies by readers of SFX Magazine. It remains a compelling and obsessive vision that is never forgotten by those that have seen it, and a film that enriches the experience with each new viewing. Blade Runner carries deep themes within its story. What is life? Who created us? What does it mean to be alive, and the search for one’s maker. And it shows what might happen to earth through recklessness and ecological devastation. The look of Blade Runner can tell the story in itself, a contradiction of fascinating imagery within a world of decay, the gloomy vision of baroque futurism.
This post is reprinted from my earlier blog Silver Screen Modiste from June 2012.
Blade Runner is a futuristic film noir, envisioned as such by Philip K. Dick in his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and by its first screenwriter and film-option holder Hampton Fancher. It carries the film noir tropes of seemingly futile endeavors set in a bleak world, where a “detective” or blade runner is charged with hunting and “retiring” a small group of android “replicants” that have escaped far-off space colonies, where these near-perfect human clones are used as servants and workers, but who now come back to earth to beseech their maker to extend their short programmed life. The lead character Rick Deckard is played by Harrison Ford, a depressed blade runner who seems to care as little about other’s lives as the empathy-less replicants themselves. From the beginning Deckard was envisioned by Fancher as played by Robert Mitchum, complete with trench coat and fedora. Harrison Ford was then cast as Deckard, but his just-completed filming of Indiana Jones in the trademark wide fedora turned Ridley Scott away from any such resemblance. The look and costumes of Sean Young as the replicant Rachael was pointedly borrowed from Joan Crawford as dressed by Gilbert Adrian, wearing wide-shouldered, waist-tapered suits and jackets with pencil skirts. The costume designers Charles Knode and Michael Kaplan, in keeping with the total production design, created inventive costumes that seemed influenced by the past, yet very contemporary and wearable in the future, the same qualities found in the timeless fashions of Adrian. There would be no cliche science-fiction costumes in Blade Runner, no zippered jumpsuits or latex body-suits, but rather a unique melange of 1940s styling, Japanese-inspired fashion, and punk-rock flash.
In the scene above San Young wears a long fur coat of chevron patterns over her suit. The rarity of fur in the brave new world of 2019 signifies her stature as the assistant to Dr. Eldon Tyrell. She is possibly a different order of replicant and her costumes denote her ability to pass as human.
There has been a perceived phenomenon in Hollywood called the “Ridley Scott Exception.” Its premise is that whereas virtually every science-fiction movie is betrayed in time by the limitations of its filmed technology, Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner are as fresh as ever, and when viewed by teenagers are invariably loved by them. The visual aesthetics of the Ridley Scott films are timeless. Every scene in Blade Runner is of a piece, its world is total in itself. It is “layered,” from its sweeping aerial shots to its multi-faceted street scenes. The multitude of objects carries forward the totality of its world, from the very covers of the magazines and newspapers (still around in 2019) that people carry, to the flashing neon signs and the bombarding, sky -scrapper-tall, electronic advertisements.
Blade Runner’s characteristic visual feature is its pervasive night and everlasting rain, with smoke permeating virtually every scene, indoors or out, to give not only a moody atmosphere but to show a world overcome by pollution. The streets are packed with people in a very multi-cultural world, and though set in Los Angeles, an Asian influence is strong. Many artists and designers participated in creating the look, most notably Ridley Scott himself. But the visual genesis of Blade Runner began with the graphic novels or “bandes dessines” of Jean Giraud, working under the pseudonym of Moebius.
Production Design for Blade Runner was accomplished by Lawrence Paull and the Art Direction was handled by David Snyder. Ridley Scott himself drew many of the concept drawings for the film. But one of the most far-reaching steps that Scott took was to hire Syd Mead as the “visual futurist” for Blade Runner. Syd’s job was primarily to design the “spinner” vehicles and other technical gadgets for the film. But Syd started producing background drawings for his vehicles to help visualize the context. This impressed Scott and so resulted in the innovative look being used for many of the sets in the film. Syd also worked on the neon building advertising signs, many in a distinctive cartouche shape.
The street scenes were created at the back lot of Warner Brothers. The New York street standing set was the foundation for a huge makeover into the fantastic visual world of Blade Runner. The construction of the sets was an enormous endeavor. Accomplishing the incredible detail of this project was helped greatly by the actor’s strike of 1980 that gave the designers and crews several extra months of work before shooting began. Ridley Scott admired Stanley Kubrick, and in both their cases attention to every set detail resulted in the heavily textured look of their films.
Ridley Scott believed in “layering” in the design and construction of the sets as well as the set dressing. Each object was endowed with its own back story and its purpose in furthering the story. The interior sets were also smoky, and filmed with flashes of light that served no particular purpose other than giving the visual stimulation that Scott desired. While the sets were very physical, the look of the film was also accomplished through expert model-making, used in the Tyrell building for example, and in the matte paintings used for the aerial views. The construction of the cars and spinners was a huge job in itself, Three shops were used that worked 18 hours a day for their manufacture, with 50 people working on the project for 5 months. $100,000 was spent on neon signs alone (huge in 1980 dollars).
Some notable Los Angeles landmarks were used as filming sets. Downtown LA’s 2nd Street tunnel, similarly built as the Pasadena freeway’s glazed white brick tunnels was used with some exciting lighting results. Especially significant was the Bradbury Building with its open atrium and wrought iron grill work and stairs. It was used as a hotel where character J.F. Sebastian lives. The interior of Deckard’s apartment was fully realized as a live in space. The Frank Loyd Wright designed concrete textile blocks, used for his Ennis House were copied for the cave-like interior. Filming was done inside the Bradbury Building, which was occupied as office space at the time. Thus filming had to be done at night, notably between 6:00 pm and 5:00 am just before clean-up and office day use. began. The building also had to be dressed with litter, and eventually cork was used as depicting debris, which not only looked good but absorbed all the water that flooded the building as rain. After each shoot the building had to be cleaned in time for its occupants. LA’s beautiful Union Train Station was also used, although it served as the Police Station in the film.
The interior of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, as it looks today above and was below as the Blade Runner set. Ironically, the Bradbury Building’s design, built in 1893, was influenced by a science fiction novel, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published in 1887.
Make-up was also a important contributor to the film’s look, as it usually does for every film, although often over-looked. Marvin Westmore was the principal make-up artist, he of the famed Westmore Hollywood make-up family. Below is Joanna Cassidy who plays the sexy replicant Zhora. Joanna Cassidy actually owned the snake as a pet.
Zhora was the first replicant that Deckard hunts in Blade Runner. She is trying to make her escape in the scene below before Deckard shoots her in a later dramatic scene. Her see-through plastic jacket was very novel and eye-catching. Adrian had also used a similar plastic for some show-girl costumes in the 1930s. Charles Knode also designed the black “dominatrix” undergarments and boots of Cassidy’s costume.
Daryl Hannah plays the replicant Pris, described as a “basic pleasure model,” in her police file. Daryl came up with the blacked-out “raccoon”eye make-up herself. Her costume, shown below, was designed by Michael Kaplan as a revealing sexy black outfit, with a dog collar, and high boots over torn hose . The costume set a fashion trend for the sexy punk look. She wears the outfit to draw the attention of Sebastian and to have him reveal the whereabouts of replicant-maker Dr. Tyrell.
One of the eery scenes in the film is that off Pris sitting among the mannequins and marionettes in Sebastian’s apartment. She poses as one of the mannequins as Deckard enters looking for her. The image makes its own statement about the reality of a replicant. It took a few years for the fashion of torn hose to morph into torn jeans, but this fashion influence has had legs.
The continual shooting of Blade Runner, from night through early morning, often with simulated rain, exhausted the cast and crew. Twice as many costumes had to be made since the simulated rain soaked the ones worn by the actors. Friction began early when an unflattering remark made by Ridley Scott about the crew, comparing them negatively to what he was used to in the U.K., was leaked, creating animosity among the crew. Harrison Ford never got along with Scott and was usually irritated. And Ford never had any good chemistry with Sean Young either, as she was new to film acting. Meanwhile the financiers of the movie were threatening Scott, while meddling with the production.
The film was greatly enhanced by the moody synthesized music of Vangelis. The score achieved an other-worldly but totally appropriate sound track. Production artist Tom Southwell actually listened to Vangelis music as he painted set designs for the film.
There has also been controversy over the various versions of Blade Runner. The latest version is the Final Cut from 2007. The voice over narration is eliminated. Harrison Ford had to provide the narration as stipulated in his contract, but to which he objected, finding it unnecessary and even dumb. Some people still enjoy the voice-over, however. The film’s original “happy ending” was also eliminated, it having been forced on Scott by the financial backers.
One crucial scene remains in all versions, the end of life scene for replicant Roy Batty played by Rutger Hauer. He fights Deckard and in a chase sequence ends up saving Deckard’s life. Batty’s final scene was written as a long monologue about the nature of his existence. But Hauer provided his own shortened lines:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
The Final Cut also reinserted a beautiful Deckard Dream sequence involving a unicorn. Not reinserted was a sex scene between Deckard and Rachael, a shame because it seems to add emotional depth to their relationship, while also emphasizing the likely transition of Rachael to a human. It was always a question mark in the movie whether he would “retire” her as a replicant, or whether some other blade runner would. At the end of the Final Cut they escape the Bradbury Building together, facing an uncertain future.
The future of a Blade Runner II is a little less uncertain. Ridley Scott had confirmed in the fall of 2013 that he is working on this project, although its release is definitely set for the future.