Grimy, gloomy and glorious: Blade Runner's compelling appeal
As its long-awaited sequel hits the cinemas, our film critic revisits the original cult classic, which was beset by controversy and conflict but managed to evoke a chilling vision of 2019 that enthralled film fans
You could blame the Nazis for Blade Runner. In 1962, legendary science fiction writer Philip K Dick was doing research for a novel called The Man in the High Castle when he gained access to Gestapo files stored at Berkeley University. He came across diaries written by SS men stationed in Poland, and in among the unspeakable catalogue of sadism and depravity, one passage stuck with him.
A bored SS man complained of tiredness, before casually adding that "we are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children". Dick was so horrified by the callousness of that statement that he concluded there must have been something wrong with the man who said it, and that he might not properly be classifiable as human. This train of thought would eventually - and tangentially - lead him to his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a dystopian nightmare set in a near future where pollution has all but destroyed our planet, killing the animals and leaving mankind in the company of incredibly life-like 'replicant' robots that often behave more decently than people.
As soon as it was written, filmmakers began sniffing around. Martin Scorsese expressed an interest, but never bought the rights to the book. Producer Herb Jaffe did option it, but Dick rebelled after reading the awful screenplay. The writer was very proprietorial about his work, and feared the worst when a consortium led by British ad-man-turned-director Ridley Scott began working on an adaptation. But when the producer Michael Deeley invited him to a screening of Blade Runner's opening 20 minutes, Dick was entranced by Scott's depiction of a tacky, ramshackle Los Angeles constantly engulfed in storms of acid rain. He gave the project his full backing, but died of a stroke a few months before Blade Runner was released in June 1982. Would he have been pleased by the final result? It's hard to tell, because the film divided critics, and caused rifts between director, producers and star.
But Blade Runner would be hugely influential, its reputation buoyed in endless critical reassessments, and is now regarded as one of the most perceptive science-fiction films ever made. Which is why everyone is so excited by its very tardy sequel.
Many years in the planning, Blade Runner 2049 is a cut above your average sequel, and has been fortunate to find a director on top of his game. Many film-makers were mooted as possible directors, including Ridley Scott himself, but the 79-year-old was happy to hover in the background as executive producer, and let Denis Villeneuve handle things.
As he has proved in films like Sicario and Prisoners, the French-Canadian director has a rare and haunting visual flair, and his 2016 science-fiction movie Arrival was a work of real vision. Ridley Scott's early films, in particular Alien and Blade Runner, were built on just this kind of detailed, multi-layered look, and Villeneuve stood the best chance of picking up the story where Scott left off. The Canadian has done a brilliant job and, dare one say it, may even have made a better film.
Blade Runner 2049 is set 30 years after the original film ended, and finds the world in an even worse state. Ecosystems have collapsed, and a sinister inventor called Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has grown rich and powerful by patenting artificial farming. He's also moved into the production of replicants, and a new generation of the androids has been created that follow orders and never rebel - at least that's the idea.
Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is just such a creature, and works for a futuristic LAPD as a blade runner, hunting down older model replicants that went into hiding to avoid being destroyed. When K 'retires' a replicant who'd been hiding out on a synthetic farm, he finds evidence of a seemingly impossible event which leads him towards a confrontation with the elusive veteran blade runner Deckard.
Though Blade Runner 2049 is full of subtle and resonant links to its predecessor, the appearance of Harrison Ford provides a powerful emotional connection to that past. In TV appearances with Gosling, Ford has cheerfully promoted the new film, which he appears to have enjoyed making. If so, that's a far cry from his experiences on the 1982 original, which was fraught for all concerned from the very start.
When screenwriter Hampton Fancher adapted Dick's story, he inserted a 1940s-style film-noir mood, and wrote the character of Deckard with Robert Mitchum in mind. But Mitchum didn't want to do it, and neither (perhaps thankfully) did Dustin Hoffman when he was approached.
At that point Ford was a rising star thanks to his work on the Star Wars films. Raiders of the Lost Ark hadn't yet been released, but when Scott and his producer talked to Steven Spielberg, they were assured that Ford had the charisma to carry a big-budget film. The actor himself was keen on the project - until it started.
The shoot was gruelling, physically demanding, and Scott and Ford fell out early on. Years later, when Scott was asked who was the "biggest pain in the arse" he'd ever worked with, he said "it's got to be Harrison - he'll forgive me now because I get on with him". The feeling was mutual: in 1992, Ford claimed that "Blade Runner is not one of my favourite films," adding ominously, "I tangled with Ridley".
"What I remember more than anything else," he elaborated, "is not the 50 nights of shooting in the rain, but the voiceover. I was still obliged to work for those clowns that came in, writing one bad voiceover after another." He was referring to Blade Runner's notorious initial release cut, which was finalised after the film had been wrested from Scott and Deeley - who were fired for going over budget - and the executive producers seized the chance to take over editing themselves.
They were concerned that middle American test audiences had found the work print hard to follow, and decided to cut some scenes, throw in a happy ending and an explanatory voiceover in the style of Philip Marlowe.
Ford hated it, and so too, in the end, did Scott: these compromises had fudged a potential masterpiece. Scott had painstakingly designed a breathtaking aesthetic using miniature models and primitive special effects to create a grim futuristic city that was simultaneously ultra-modern and shabby. But those amateurish tinkerings did Blade Runner no favours: it performed poorly at the box office, and only began to gain a reputation posthumously, as it were, on video and DVD.
Some critics loved it, and saw extraordinary vision in its existential musings on what it is that constitutes consciousness, and a soul. Its fan base grew, and led to reassessment, especially after Ridley Scott sanctioned a director's cut (1997) and a final cut (2007), which restored the film to its original glory.
Without that annoying voiceover, one could finally appreciate that here was a film way ahead of its time. For a start, its look was utterly original: when I interviewed Scott some years back and asked him about his inspirations for Blade Runner's aesthetic, he told me he'd based it in part on the industrial landscape of his native Durham.
Somehow, that grimy influence chimed perfectly with Dick's gloomy vision of humanity's future, and Blade Runner's speculations about global warming, exponential pollution and the rise of computers and androids have proved worryingly prophetic. It was oddly poetic for a sci-fi adventure - for instance Rutger Hauer's speech in which a dying replicant recalls the highlights of its brief but extraordinary life.
No wonder all attempts at writing a sequel were blocked by one or other of the original film's participants - until now. Somehow, original writer Hampton Fancher and Villeneuve have managed to respect the ambiance and themes of the original without being bound by, or overwhelmed by them. In fact, Blade Runner 2049 has managed to expand and blow up Scott and Dick's original world into something vaster, more desolate, and grandly epic.
All the existential angst is retained, and some scenes would not be entirely out of place in a Samuel Beckett play. But the sweeping panoramas of desolation that Villeneuve and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins have composed are breathtaking, and ought only be viewed on a very large screen. Blade Runner 2 has definitely been worth the 35-year wait.