Blade Runner: A Comparison of Critiques

By Paul Anthony Jonze.

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) is a science fiction film set against the dystopian backdrop of Los Angeles, 2019. The film met with mixed reviews, and according to American website Box Office Mojo, ranks at number #27 on the domestic grosses of the year, with takings of  $27.5m, a fraction of the money made by the year’s forerunner of science fiction E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982), which made over $352m. Despite the underwhelming impact of Blade Runner in its original year of release, the film has been twice re-released and re-edited for public release, and has since gone on to be accepted as one of the most important science fiction films of our time. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 92% positive rating by the critics, which is followed by an 89% positive review rating by the site’s users. The following selected reviews are a reflection of how the film was received on its initial release in 1982, the re-released ‘Director’s Cut’ in 1992 and the ‘Final Cut’ released in 2007. The reviews are contemporary to the film’s release dates, and illuminate and evaluate audience perception of the film, and how it has altered over the course of its releases.

 Sneak Preview is an American television show featuring reviews by Siskel and Ebert, who give their opinions on up and coming movies. In an episode broadcast in 1982, Roger Ebert opens the review by describing it as “ambitious” and focuses his interest on the visual aesthetics and lack of character development:

This movie goes through some pretty predictable paces about their forbidden love, but I was never really interested in the characters in Blade Runner, I didn’t find them convincing. Instead what impressed me in this film were the special effects, the wonderful use of optical trickery to show me a gigantic imaginary Los Angeles, which in the vision of this movie, has been turned into a sort of futuristic Tokyo.

                                                                                                          (Roger Ebert, 1982)

He describes the story as “predictable”, claiming it features “cliff-hanging clichés”, and describes the characters as “standard” (Ebert, 1982). He gives a recommendation that Blade Runner is worth going to see, but if only to be witness to the special effects. Gene Siskel (1982) agrees that the effects are “dazzling for the first twenty minutes” but then goes on to ask “and then what?” as he says the story goes nowhere and does not evolve. He compares the film to Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), stating that although Blade Runner is similar in visual achievements, it is the important narrative that Alien has, that it lacks. He even goes as far as to say the film is a “waste of time” (Siskel, 1982).

These views are mirrored in Roger Ebert’s own film review in The Sun Times: “He [Ridley Scott] seems more concerned with creating his film worlds than populating them with plausible characters, and that’s the trouble this time. Blade Runner is a stunningly interesting visual achievement, but a failure as a story” (Ebert, 1982). He also questions the cultural influences of the film, and the notion of a future Los Angeles appearing to have such a large Asian community: “I would have predicted L.A. would be Hispanic, but never mind. It looks sensational” (Ebert, 1982). This statement reflects early-80s America’s fast growing Hispanic communities, however, he does state that this can be easily forgiven and put aside in favour of concentrating on the special effects.

Janet Maslin’s review in The New York Times refers to the film as “muddled yet mesmerizing”  and goes on to state that the film is “a mess, at least as far as its narrative is concerned. Almost nothing is explained coherently, and the plot has great lapses” (Maslin, 1982). This is a view that appears to be not only adopted by the critics, but by the paying audience too. In an article from the 50th issue of Starburst Magazine, John Brosnan explains the reaction from moviegoers in several theatres on the film’s opening day. He claims the audience were so disappointed in the film that several of them “stomped out with puzzled disgust” (Brosnan, 1982).

A feature in the 1982 summer edition of international film quarterly magazine Sight and Sound offers an insight as to why the film may not have been received as well as had hoped. In an article entitled The Age of the Replicant, reviewer Philip Strick opens not with a direct review of the film itself, but rather with an insight as to how robots, or rather society’s fear of them, was beginning to develop at the time:

On 16 December 1940, John W. Campbell Jr., editor of the magazine Astounding Science, met the young writer Isaac Asimov to discuss a new ‘positronic robot’ love story. During the discussion, the Three Laws of Robotics came into being, a fictional code designed to protect the safety of humans in a society, which was predicted becoming increasingly dependant on robotic skills. The story, Liar!, was published in May 1941. It marked the ‘birth’ of Asimov’s formidable robotics expert Susan Calvin, a heroine so chilling as to appear, on occasion, almost non-human herself, and established a formula for the subsequent series of Asimov robot dramas which have since been widely reprinted that the Three Laws of Robotics are often now assumed to be already in force. They aren’t. Forty years on, in July 1981, a worker stepped across a safety barrier at the Kawasaki Heavy Industries plant in Tokyo, and was promptly stabbed in the back by a mechanical protection device, which impaled him against another machine. Among innumerable examples of death through industrial misadventure, this was a milestone, the world’s first murder by robot.

                                                                                                  (Strick, 1982: 168)

The reviewer here is, perhaps, associating a fear of robots with the film’s initial failure, suggesting that people were not ready for a film that not only gave a grim insight to the near future, but also implies that machines are evolving into thinking, living beings. Strick goes on to say:

It’s daunting to learn that Japan produces about 20,000 robots a year, and some 70,000 are already employed, with full labour union approval, in Japanese factories. These are intended to release their human counterparts for such creative work as the maintenance of existing machinery and the development of new, improved models, roles which illustrate the steady growth of a wholly robot-oriented culture.

                                                                                                  (Strick, 1982: 168)

Taking Strick’s words into consideration, and the current events of the fatality by the hand of the robot in Tokyo, it could be assumed that there was something in the human subconscious in 1982 that could not disassociate between a fantasy film and real life. Strick elaborates:

The struggle of human facsimiles, as much a part of science fiction writing as Frankenstein, has in the cinema intensified only during the last dozen years. The trend-setter for this, as for so much else, was 2001: A Space Odyssey, primarily by unleashing a flock of special effects graduates to teach the industries. In contrast to Kubrick’s example, that it doesn’t cost a fortune to reconstruct outer space. In 2001, the unsleeping red eye computer HAL-9000, terminating life- systems in a placid revenge for their complexity, spoke eloquently in warm and appealing fallible tones of robot liberation.

            (Strick, 1982: 168)

Like Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) also met with an initially negative response, but also went on to gain cult status, as well as being identified as one of the most celebrated science fiction films of all time. Rotten Tomatoes give the film a positive critics rating of 96%. However, it seemed by 1982, audiences had not warmed to the idea of robots and humans living side by side.

By the time the ‘Director’s Cut’ was released, marking the ten year anniversary of Blade Runner, critics had time to think about why the film might not have been the success that the filmmakers wanted. Film reviewer Rita Kempley for the Washington Post reflected that in 1982, the film was “a box-office disappointment lost on audiences appalled by the British visualist’s glowering, smoggy portrait of the future” (1992). It could be said that with the American public attempting to put the Vietnam War behind them, the audiences did not want to watch a film set in a grimy, wet, crowded, generally unhappy-looking future just thirty years away. This could also reflect on why E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial was such a big box office hit in comparison. But Kempley’s article does go on to state that “the film persevered” and that with a few technical tweaks, “never feels heavy or pretentious – only more and more engrossing with each viewing” (1992).

It would appear that the initial reception of the film was beginning to turn around, and that audiences were warming to Scott’s film. In a review for Deseret News, Robert Abele questions why audiences in 1982 responded differently to audiences ten years later with the ‘Director’s Cut’:

Maybe back in 1982 entertainment had to be less pessimistic, more positive. After all, the biggest hit that year was E.T. Now, in an election year in which citizens are finding little to smile about, perhaps this prophetic vision of an urban hell marked by acid rain, greedy big business and lost souls will uncover new fans. After all, the biggest hit this year so far is the relentlessly dark sequel to Batman.

                                                                                                          (Abele, 1992)

He goes on to state that ten years later, the film now has a growing number of fans, thanks to video sales, which helped its popularity. To mark the anniversary of the film’s release, screenings of the original theatrical version were being shown around theatres again, due to popular demand: “Director’s cut or not, the number of Blade Runner defenders – its champions consider it one of the decade’s masterworks – seems to grow every year. When the USA Film Festival screened the 1982 version last year, people had to be turned away at the door” (Abele, 1992).

In a review in the Washington Post, Desson Howe describes his point of view of the film from an audience perspective in the cinema. In celebration of the ‘Director’s Cut’ release of that year, he too attended a screening of the original film:

The fact is, this movie is great in any version. On the Uptown Theatre’s curvaceous, jumbo screen, it will knock your socks off. Personally, I thought the final scene in the 1982 version — featuring borrowed footage from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — was tremendous. After a few viewings of the film, I even grew to like Ford’s sluggish, rather superfluous narration. But at the same time, I don’t miss what has been cut from the new version. The overall effect is so beautifully wrought, a few details aren’t going to bring things crashing down.

                                                                                                          (Howe, 1992)

Of course, like any film, the re-release was not without its harsher critics. Roger Ebert returned to the film for the new edit, and still questioned elements of its narratology, while comparing it to the still impressive special effects:

Seeing the movie again, even in this revised version, I still felt the human story did not measure up to the special effects […] The movie’s Los Angeles, with its permanent dark cloud of smog, its billboards hundreds of feet high, its street poverty living side by side with incredible wealth, may or may not come true – but there aren’t many 10-year-old movies that look more prophetic now than they did at the time.

                                                                                                                     (Ebert, 1992)

Ebert recognizes the technical improvements of the film, but is still critical overall. Chris Hicks of Deseret News mirrors this opinion, stating “All of these elements do improve the film, but it remains a very dark and far too long thriller with many dull moments that would serve the film better by moving along a bit faster” (Hicks, 1992). Regardless of the negative reviews, the film was gaining popularity, and through limited theatrical showings, went to make a further $3.7m domestically in cinemas, as stated by Box Office Mojo. Fred Kaplan of the New York Times hailed the ‘Directors Cut’ as a “cult film turned classic” (1997), and in regards to the audience reception when the film was re-released in 1992, he says that “the print was lent to a Los Angeles theater showing a festival of 70-millimeter films. Fans lined up around the block. The same thing happened when two art houses screened it in Los Angeles and San Francisco” (Kaplan, 1997). This differed therefore from the reception in 1982: “Preview screenings were disastrous. Crowds went to see the new Harrison Ford movie, thinking it would be like Raiders of the Lost Ark […] and they were befuddled” (Kaplan, 1997)

Author Scott Bukatman addressed the issue of the change in opinion of the film, stating that it was due to the unearthed material that the studio demanded be cut from the original theatrical version, that helped restore the film to its original glory:

Blade Runner opened on 25th June 1982 throughout the United States. The initial response to the film could not have been entirely unexpected, but it was still grievously disappointing. Neither the critics nor the public were prepared for the pensive darkness of the finished work […] Interest in the film was significantly boosted when Michael Arick, a film sound preservationist, found what he thought was a rare 70mm print in the Todd-AO vaults […] The print was screened for Ridley, who recognized it as a workprint used for the Denver and Dallas sneak previews. The sound was crude and the Vangelis score was absent from the final reels, but Scott was delighted to find a print for the film that was closer to his original conception. Further screenings at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were sold out well in advance, and enthusiasm for the alternative version was strong enough to tempt Warners into a ‘re-release’ of a restored print. A 35mm version of the workprint was shown to steadily building audiences at the NuArt Theatre in Los Angeles and the Castro in San Francisco, where it broke box-office records.

                                                                                        (Bukatman, 1997: 35-37)

Not content with the ‘Directors Cut’, Ridley Scott went on to release the film for a third and final time in 2007 with the release of ‘The Final Cut’. It was at this point that the film was beginning to garner the title of “the genre defining film” (Collura et al, 2007). Fans were thrilled that Scott himself had restored the film to the version he wanted audiences to see, and the advent of DVD and blu-ray formats enhanced the special effects still further:

If you haven’t guessed yet, by the way, I’m a real fan of Blade Runner. Simply put, this is one of my all-time favorite films. That said, Blade Runner: The Final Cut is a breathtaking experience. This is truly the ultimate vision of a classic. It’s just extraordinary after all these years to discover so much that’s new here, and to realize just how well this 25-year-old masterpiece holds up even today. If you love Blade Runner like I do, this new cut is simply not to be missed. Be sure to catch it on the big screen if you can. But whether you’re able to see it in theaters or not, rest assured that the DVD and high-def versions promise to deliver the film in exceptional quality, with an amazing wealth of bonus features – the special edition we’ve all been waiting for. Prepare to be dazzled… and to FINALLY see Blade Runner, as it was meant to be seen, for the very first time.

                                                                                                                     (Hunt, 2007)

In addition to the critics’ appreciation for the newly edited version of the film, fans on forums and online film sites began to regard the film as one of the most important science fiction films of our time. One website user said of the film: “The recent final cut is of course the best and most picture perfect version. The few touch ups (unlike Star Wars) actually improve the film and finish it” (Hubbard, 2007). This is an opinion mirrored by Empire magazine’s Adam Smith, who asks, “Why watch a film seven times? Because someone’s done it right and transported you to its world. This retooling makes the film worth an eighth trip, and more. Not a case of Blade Runner Redux, but Blade Runner Deluxe” (2007).

Again, as with the ‘Director’s Cut’ in 1992, the film was not without its more negative critics – however for differing reasons than previously. Where during the releases that preceded this version critics had questioned the narrative and character development, the film’s moral ethics were being questioned. Christian Answers reviewer Bret Willis gave the film a moral rating of ‘very offensive’, despite giving the film an overall rating of 4/5. However the site’s users saw the film in a more positive light, as the following two reviews by online users (notably teenagers) suggest:

The film is in essence a highly interesting and thought-provoking moral debate. What constitutes human life? Does a man-made human, genetically engineered in a lab, have the same rights as one fashioned by God? It’s true that some people may find some scenes shocking but there is very little gratuity…

                                                                                                    (Jim [username], 2007)

I viewed the “Final Cut” of the film, so there are some differences between it and the theatrical version, but darn! was it still awesome. Props to Rutger Hauer (the original “Hitcher”), the writer(s) and special effects team!! This is a movie I am going to purchase.

                                                                                    (Badger, [username], 2007)

By 2007, the film had finally received the status that Scott had hoped to achieve but did not in 1982. As Strick’s words describe, “Scott’s film finds the human and the un-human almost indistinguishable, outwardly as similar as, say, cop and robber, spectator and performer. As a result, the destruction of the one by the other is more disturbing and internecine” (Strick, 1982: 168), indicating it was clear that in 1982, audiences were not yet ready to watch a film about a robot with a human conscious. While nobody has denied Blade Runner‘s achievements in terms of special effects, the overall consensus of the film is that as time passed, the spectator was more able to separate the themes within it as fantasy compared to that of real life, which helped with the film’s increasing notoriety and popularity.

© Paul Anthony Jonze, 2012

Bibliography:

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Filmography

Blade Runner, 1982. [Film] Directed by Ridley Scott. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982. [Film] Directed by Steven Spielberg. USA: Universal.

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