'Blade Runner' at 40: Director Ridley Scott's dystopian masterpiece continues to reverberate today

Blade Runner
Director Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic "Blade Runner" celebrates its 40th anniversary in June 2022. The 1982 Ridley Scott film has spawned a franchise based on Philip K. Dick's science fiction. (Image credit: Warner Bros.)

It’s a tall task to imagine a more pivotal year for classic Hollywood genre films than 1982. The cosmic tumblers aligned to smile on geeky, big-budget releases that included such iconic flicks as "Poltergeist," "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," "The Thing," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," "The Dark Crystal," "Tron," "Conan the Barbarian," and director Ridley Scott’s neo-noir jewel, "Blade Runner."

Warner Bros.' "Blade Runner" opened on June 25, 1982 and received a mediocre reception upon release and was nowhere near the influential masterwork that’s now considered to be one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time. Its dystopian tale of a future Los Angeles of 2019 that’s become a crumbling megalopolis and its team of anti-android assassins was adapted from the award winning author Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Here's our streaming guide for the Blade Runner franchise if you need to catch up.

Starring Harrison Ford, who was hot off filming "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Blade Runner" told the story of Rick Deckard, a haggard detective assigned to the Blade Runner squad to ‘retire’ synthetic humans on Earth after they’ve been declared illegal except for use on off-world colonies where they were deployed as slave labor.

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Built by the nefarious Tyrell Corporation, these advanced robots called Replicants were identical to humans and the tech firm had currently advanced its product to the NEXUS-6 phase of advancement. When a team of six Replicants slaughter a shuttle crew and return to Earth, the rogue roundup is on and the bounty hunter is ordered to track the surviving foursome down.

"Blade Runner" co-starred Rutger Hauer as the combat replicant Roy Batty, Daryl Hannah as Pris, a sex-bot android, Joanna Cassidy as Zhora, Brion James as Leon, and Sean Young as the lovely Rachael, a Nexus-7 model embedded with false memories to provide an emotional cushion.

M. Emmet Walsh portrayed Deckard's boss, Captain Bryant and Edward James Olmos played Detective Gaff, another Blade Runner who knew the truth about Deckard. 

Related: Real-Life 'Replicants': 6 Humanoid Robots Used for Space Exploration

The film poster for Blade Runner in 1982. (Image credit: Warner Bros.)

As Scott's next project after 1979's "Alien," the visionary filmmaker turned to a screenplay written by David Peoples and Hampton Fancher, whose producer friend Brian Kelly had optioned the book from Philip K. Dick. The endeavor had immediate appeal to Scott as he felt it would provide the perfect canvas for a pioneering sci-fi film filled with provocative material about mortality, the perils of over-reaching science, the nature of humanity, and an inevitable clash with fringe AI technology.

Saturated in the blue haze of cigarette smoke, grimy cityscapes, and flawed downtrodden characters that inhabit classic detective thrillers from authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, "Blade Runner" reinvented cerebral sci-fi films in ways that remain both elusive and illuminating.

Ridley Scott’s exquisite worldbuilding, somber tone, and imaginative production design in "Blade Runner" are legendary, and this neon-splashed Hell with a perpetual acid rain drenching the over-populated urban blight and flying cars zooming above the decadence has been the visual standard for most bleak sci-fi movies and video games ever since. 

Related: 'Blade Runner: Black Lotus' scores a new sequel miniseries from Titan Comics

Blade Runner's dystopian future included vast electronic billboards and flying cars. (Image credit: Warner Bros.)

That's a remarkable legacy on its own if it weren't for the myriad other influences and inspirations the movie has provided for generations of artists, designers, and filmmakers. One impressive accolade is it being the first major film to delve into what would later be coined by "Neuromancer" author William Gibson as cyberpunk.

Fortified with a transcendent electronic score by Greek composer Vangelis, revolutionary optical effects, models and miniature work from "2001: A Space Odyssey's" Douglas Trumbull, and lush cinematography courtesy of Jordan Cronenweth, "Blade Runner" is a true revelation to behold. 

Hauer's memorable "Tears in Rain" speech on the rainy rooftop with Deckard before he expires is one of cinematic history's most indelible moments. His lines were written by screenwriter David Peoples and modified at the last minute by Hauer himself. Rumors have confirmed that crew members watching the shoot that day got a bit misty after the death monologue and we don't blame them a single teardrop.

One controversial aspect of the theatrical release that's been discussed ad nauseam is Harrison Ford's ham-handed Deckard voice-over as a response to nervous studio executives worried that audiences wouldn't be able to follow the plot. Ford apparently gave an intentionally flat reading of that hardboiled dialog perhaps as a revolt against the addition, but maybe just to mimic that sort of deadpan delivery heard in vintage Hollywood detective flicks. 

The droll, unnecessary voice-over was thankfully removed in 1992's "Blade Runner: The Director's Cut" and Deckard’s unicorn dream sequence was added, confirming that the bounty hunter was indeed an experimental replicant when paired with Gaff’s tell-tale origami unicorns. But this version also uses a happy ending with Deckard and Rachael streaking above the countryside in a Spinner flying car.

Sean Young's Nexus-7 Replicant, Rachael.  (Image credit: Warner Bros.)

By far the most complete variant, and Scott’s personal favorite, is 2007's "Blade Runner: The Final Cut" which was remastered for picture and sound as part of the film’s 25th anniversary. This version removes the happy ending and the voice-over, keeps the unicorn sequence, adds a reshot stunt scene of Joanna Cassidy's Zhora, and lets Roy Batty release his white dove into a darkened sky instead of daylight.

Denis Villeneuve’s "Blade Runner: 2049" sequel of 2017 was a beautiful companion piece to the original film that respected its legacy and was carefully crafted to mesh with Scott’s masterpiece.

On the occasion of its 40th anniversary today, it’s satisfying to know that "Blade Runner" is still being dissected and discussed as the quintessential sci-fi art film it is, one that penetrates into the mysteries of creation and its inherent responsibilities as humanity strives to avoid exterminating itself in the wake of soul-stripping advancements of machine technology.

With "Blade Runner," Sir Ridley Scott conjured up a meditative mood and a dystopian dream for the entire world to ponder and that’s quite an astounding achievement to salute after four decades. Not bad for only the British filmmaker's third movie!

For more speculative fiction classics check out our list of the Best Sci-Fi Movies Of All Time.

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.