This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine.
When Blade Runner played the Castro Theatre in San Francisco recently, I went to see it on their old-school big screen, where it belongs. This was the Final Cut, one of multiple versions (not all of which have been released theatrically) made since the film’s first release in 1982. For some reason the Final Cut has been unavailable to theaters since it debuted seven years ago. Blade Runner’s production and re-production history is a saga in itself, as a little web research will show you. It’s clearly always been an object of obsession for its director, Ridley Scott. And has since become one for legions of fans, including me.
It was (appropriately) a night of rain, although a needed, drought-breaking rain, not the toxic acid rain that unendingly fills the skies of “Los Angeles 2019” in the film. It was a weeknight, and a busy time of year. Much of the audience didn’t look old enough to have seen the film when it first came out. But the ticket line for this 1400-seat theater stretched around the block, for both shows. Why? “People love some Blade Runner,” said a guy in line.
And why is that? Blade Runner was not a hit back in 1982. The love has taken time to manifest. In hindsight, though, it’s clear that a good deal of its power to attract comes from the extraordinary level of craft applied to both of the elements that determine reception in any film: visual and narrative.
For decades in Hollywood, pulp genre films were associated with low budgets and correspondingly simple design. That’s why earlier sci-fi movies mostly look cheap and silly. Stanley Kubrick blasted the hinges off the genre’s door back in 1968 with 2001: A Space Odyssey, but his approach didn’t inspire a herd of followers. Spielberg and Lucas were visual standouts in the 1970s, but their narrative model was for kids – it was the Boys’ Own Story. What Scott did with Blade Runner that was unique, at least until Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, was to tell a grown-up future story in which the design was superbly visionary and still created a putative environment on this planet, not out in space somewhere. Blade Runner’s visual aesthetic is both familiar and exotic, and, for a genre film, almost lovingly detailed.
(We’re talking about Hollywood here; Europe’s sci-fi masterpieces like Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Godard’s Alphaville, or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris had already shown what could be done even without the kind of capital demanded for “big” studio pictures.)
But of course there is another criterion for enduring success that applies uniquely to stories of the future: can it prophesy?
Blade Runner’s rise really began in the ‘90s, when the rapturous wedding of capital and new technology, the ascending power of the Asian Tiger economies and transnational corporations, and advances in genetic engineering and AI (in 1997 a computer first beats a chess World Champion), indicated that much of the film’s future scenario was now clearly nascent.
This is key, because the best sci-fi is not predictive but prophetic. It doesn’t show us what we’re going to be wearing or driving in fifty years, but how living in the world could feel. And not just in the future, of course, but how it can feel right now. That’s because prophecy, unlike prediction, has a timeless quality. Its reality is always imminent. It’s always a reflection of inner understandings more than specific external characteristics.