Blade Runner’s Stations of the Cross

It’s been forty years since “Blade Runner” was first screened. Now considered a masterpiece of science fiction cinema, it nevertheless received a very mixed reception from critics and the public alike. This loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel « Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? » (1968) was it too ahead of its time? Not in phase with the political context of the time? Was it the victim of deceptive marketing? Or misplaced demands from its producers? In fact, a bit of all of this at once…

Let’s rewind the thread (or rather the VHS) of this story with twists and turns. When he arrived on the project, at the beginning of 1980, Ridley Scott was 42 years old, but only two feature films to his credit, including « Alien » (1979), a planetary cardboard on the border between horror and science fiction. Great beginnings, but not yet the business card that allows you to impose (all) your choices on the studios. Unlike Stanley Kubrick, an American filmmaker who will choose exile in England, Ridley Scott is an Englishman who sets out to conquer Hollywood. It begins with this dystopia whose action takes place in Los Angeles in 2019. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), ex-cop expert in the art of tracking down « replicants », these androids with human appearance but with limited life expectancy, must return to service to « retire » four very sophisticated models, in full rebellion, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, who will die like his character in 2019).

At the box office, “Blade Runner” was going to suffer above all from the release, two weeks earlier, of a world phenomenon: “ET, the extraterrestrial”, by Spielberg.

This hunt serves as a pretext for a reflection on the human condition, which distinguishes it from robots (the « replicants » are flushed out thanks to a test verifying their lack of empathy vis-à-vis animal suffering), and delivers a acerbic criticism of this not so distant future: humanity is depicted there as an addition of solitudes, plunged into an oppressive, humid and dark megalopolis, where inequalities have reached their peaks. “This film is a warning,” summarizes journalist Paul M. Sammon. He says to us: “Look towards which world we are heading. Don’t foolishly follow orders. Be human.” That was Philip K. Dick’s message. »

« My blender and toaster will love it »

This one, however, doubts the fidelity of the project to his original work. A first screenplay was written in the early 1970s by Robert Jaffe. « Do I beat you up here at the airport, or do I have to wait until we get back to my apartment? » slams Philip K. Dick after reading it. The rights to the book were purchased and the script amended several times, until filming began in March 1981, despite the withdrawal of the Filmways company, which financed half of the budget. The sign of the “Blade Runner” curse? By a strange coincidence, many brands, such as Atari, Cuisinart or Pan Am, whose logos were visible in the film, would go bankrupt a few years after its release.

Above all, to see how « Blade Runner » is welcomed at the end of June 1982, one wonders if he is not the first victim of this curse. From the work screenings, the producers look gray. « We don’t understand anything », they worry, not even convinced by the sumptuous sets of futurologist Syd Mead and the bewitching music of Vangelis. They demand the addition of a “happy ending”, totally shifted, and a voice-over with useless didacticism. « I recorded it because I had to, but I didn’t think it would be used, » says Harrison Ford. Besides, Ridley was against…” For the new ending, which requires shots of nature seen from the sky, six days of filming in a helicopter are added. “But because of the clouds, we couldn’t see anything. We had to ask to use the rushes of “Shining” ”, testifies the executive producer Katherine Haber. Not enough to avoid the iceberg on the way out. « There’s probably an audience for this sort of thing. I’m sure my blender and toaster will love it,” critic Jeff Simon chirps. In the United States, out of sixteen articles, eight downvote the film, five stay between two waters, and only three support it. With direct consequences on the number of entries. “I saw the film at 4 p.m. on weekdays. We were four in the room. It broke my heart, ”recalls David Dryer, head of special effects.

In the US Library of Congress

Entries fail to cover the $28 million budget. The failure is obvious. In France, it is hardly better. « ‘Blade Runner’ is a horribly tiring film which hardly highlights any of the richness of its screenplay », slices the daily « la Croix ». In one, « Metal Hurlant » and Philippe Manoeuvre are indignant: « It’s Philip K. Dick we’re murdering! » »

Icon QuoteWith Reagan in power, Americans wanted to believe in a better future. They wanted optimism, not a depressive film. David Dryer

Many will later regret these final opinions. At the box office, “Blade Runner” was going to suffer above all from the release, two weeks earlier, of a global phenomenon: “ET, the extraterrestrial”, by Spielberg, with a much less depressing vision. During this summer of 1982, there was even a monster traffic jam in theaters: « Star Trek 2 », « Poltergeist », « The Thing », « Conan the Barbarian », « Tron », « Rocky 3 » or « Mad Max 2” scrap to attract the barge. Not everyone will make it. Above all, the marketing around “Blade Runner” presents it as a mix between “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones”. Misleading promise… “With Reagan in power, Americans wanted to believe in a better future. They wanted optimism, not a depressive film”, also analyzes David Dryer.

Thanks to the boom in video, and two new versions released in 1992 and 2007, with less voice-overs and a syrupy ending, the « depressive film » was nevertheless to establish itself as one of the greatest of the history of cinema, with considerable influence. In 1993, it was selected by the American Library of Congress to be kept there, because of its cultural, historical and aesthetic contribution. And, in 2002, the magazine « Wired » ranks it at the top of the top 20 of the best science fiction films. A destiny dreamed of by Denis Villeneuve, the director of “Blade Runner 2049”, which was also shunned in theaters when it was released in 2017…


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