Ridley Scott's Blade Runner premiered in June 1982. It was Harrison Ford's first picture since Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Scott's first since Alien. Reviews, however, were overwhelmingly negative ("A film that has neither strong characters nor a strong story," wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times;"It forces passivity on you," Pauline Kael tsked in The New Yorker), and audiences were baffled, sometimes even hostile. Moreover, a lovable bit of merchandise had landed in theaters only two weeks earlier. Scott's brackish rain had no chance against Spielberg's amber goo-glow; and as E.T. began its ascent into universal consciousness, Blade Runner sank with barely a ripple.
When I first saw Scott's strange brew, a mix of sci-fi, noir, and metaphysics, in 1982, it failed to clear the lowest hurdle for anything that aspires to seriousness: The audience laughed. (For a movie without a single joke, this is no small problem.) But Blade Runner's reputation has seen a complete rehab job since then: It is the 97th best film of all time, according to the American Film Institute, and the Guardian has called it the best science-fiction film ever made. Straighten your face, here comes the king: Blade Runner now enters the room with all the pomp due a full-blown cinematic masterpiece. "Together in One Visionary 4-Disc Box Set" one can now own not only Scott's "Final Cut," but "Three Complete Archival Versions." Need more? Then buy the "Five-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition" in collectible "Deckard Briefcase" packaging.
For those whose memory has lapsed, Blade Runner tells two parallel stories. In the first, a small band of bio-engineered humanoids, called "replicants," escape their "off-world" bondage and return to Earth in search of their designers, in an attempt to lengthen their lifespans, which have been set at four years. In the second, a cop named Rick Deckard (played by Ford) tries to hunt them down and kill them. (At the beginning of the movie, Deckard has recently quit the force, where he was a "blade runner," a bounty hunter authorized to "retire" replicants, but he is strong-armed out of retirement.)
The humanoids are godly; beautiful, amoral, utterly without pity. The humans, meanwhile, are portraits of sallow, creepy-crawly compromise: emotionally stunted, cynical, two-faced. "More human than human," crowed the corporation that designed the replicants. The film pushes the unintended irony of the slogan to its maximum conclusion. Replicants love and die with auroral intensity; we humans are the walking dead.
The prevailing meme—that over time, scales fell from prejudicial eyes, and Blade Runner's true value as an extraordinary act of filmmaking bravado was recognized—is appealing, but also incomplete. It may not have flattered the times, but in one sense Blade Runner benefited, and benefited enormously, from them. Blade Runner is among the first movies—if not the first—whose fortunes revived in the new channels of "ancillary distribution." This is no accident. The movie's unalloyed virtue, admired even at the time of its release, is an assaultive and wildly original production design, a mix of that rain, nuzzling gouts of smoke, and an eternally shifting kaleidoscope of artificial lights—all of it suggestive of a richly dystopic society and a wretchedly fatigued planet Earth. If nothing else, Blade Runner is mesmerizing when caught in pieces; it murmurs beautifully in the background. Unloved on the big screen, Blade Runner found its perfect medium in VCRs and cable TV—in the fragmented, ambient multiplatform afterlife that has become, over the past 20 or so years, the common stuff of movies.