ELEGANT CARS GLIDING THROUGH A DECAYING infrastructure, the dispossessed huddling in the shadow of bright skyscrapers, the sensation of a dystopian, multiethnic civilization that has managed to simultaneously advance and regress--these are scenes of modern urban decline, and if they make you think of a movie, and chances are they will, it can have only one name: "Blade Runner."
Few, if any, motion pictures have the gift of predicting the future as well as crystallizing an indelible image of it, but that is the key to "Blade Runner's" accomplishments. One of the most enduringly popular science-fiction films, it revived the career of a celebrated writer, helped launch a literary movement and set a standard for the artistic use of special effects many people feel has never been equaled. And, until now, it has never been seen in anything like the form intended by the people who created it.
Starting this weekend, a full decade later than anyone anticipated, Ridley Scott's original director's cut of this moody, brilliant film is having its premier engagement, opening in 60 cities nationwide, with another 90 to follow in three weeks. While classic revivals have become commonplace, the usual re-released versions offer either a technical improvement (Orson Welles' "Othello") or else a sprinkle of new footage ("Lawrence of Arabia"). This "Blade Runner" is a very different version, a cut that until two years ago no one even knew existed, and because of the film's reputation and power it is intended by Warner Bros. to make some serious money.
Yet if this seems like a simplistic tale of good finally triumphing over evil, be aware that absolutely nothing about "Blade Runner" is as simple as it first seems. For this was a film that was awful to make, even by normal Hollywood standards of trauma, agonizing to restructure and rediscovered by a total fluke. The people who worked on it called it "Blood Runner," a sardonic tribute to the amount of personal grief and broken relationships it caused, and they recall it with horror and awe.
Production designer Lawrence G. Paull remembers it as "a dream and a nightmare all at once." Art director David L. Snyder, whose personal life was one of those that broke under the strain, remembers that, psychologically, "Ridley beat the hell out of me; beatings were in order all the time." But he now looks on that time as the most intoxicating of his career, calling it "keeping up with the genius, like working with Orson Welles." While star Harrison Ford considers "Blade Runner" his worst movie experience, co-star Sean Young calls it "still my favorite film." Director Scott finds himself "progressively amazed" as interest in the film "gets bigger and bigger and bigger." Yet it took veteran producer Michael Deeley, whose previous picture was the Oscar-winning "The Deer Hunter," 10 years to find the enthusiasm to produce another theatrical film.
More than anything else, "Blade Runner's" saga is, as the best Hollywood stories invariably are, a microcosm for the industry, starkly underlining how irredeemably deep the classic split between aesthetics and commerce is and also how painfully inevitable. As with an etching by Escher, the final decision on who the villains are here, or even if there are any villains at all, depends on your point of view.
THE MAN WHO BENEFITED MOST, ALBEIT posthumously, from "Blade Runner" was the man who started it all. When he died at the age of 53 in March, 1982, less than four months before the film's premiere, he was, according to his agent, Russell Galen, looking forward to that event "like a kid on Christmas Eve."
Philip K. Dick was one of the architects of modern science fiction. A passionate, emotionally unstable visionary, author of dozens of books and hundreds of short stories, he was, according to critic John Clute, "the first writer of genre science fiction to become an important literary figure." As Richard Bernstein noted in a recent front-page New York Times Book Review piece (an august location the writer never expected to inhabit while he was alive), Dick articulated "our deepest fears and most persistent fantasies about technology and its potential to destroy us."
These themes come out quite vividly in his 1968 novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" The main character, Rick Deckard, a futuristic bounty hunter with an unhappy marriage, is offered the job of hunting down half a dozen Nexus 6 androids, or "andys": synthetic human beings with four-year life spans who've escaped from Mars and are trying to pass as authentic humans on a bleak planet Earth.