June 25 is the 35th anniversary of the 1982 Ridley Scott-directed “Blade Runner,” one of the all-time science-fiction classics. The long-planned sequel, “Blade Runner 2049,” starring Ryan Gosling, opens in October; earlier this year, director Denis Villeneuve told Variety’s “Playback” podcast that he felt a lot of pressure working on “the most risky project” of his life, because the original is so iconic.
But if it makes him feel better, the earlier film was not a big hit with audiences or critics when it opened. In the 21st century, that seems incredible — how could people not flip out? But “Blade Runner” was so radical that it took several years for its impact to sink in. Even the filmmakers had misgivings: there have been multiple re-edits over the years, trying to hit movie perfection.
Rotten Tomatoes says it was “misunderstood when it first hit theaters.” In the original review, Variety reflected a lot of the mixed reaction, saying the film is “a stylistically dazzling film noir set 37 years hence in a brilliantly imagined Los Angeles… Special effects and sheer virtuosity of the production will attract considerable attention but unrelenting grimness and vacuum at the story’s center will make it tough to recoup reported $30 million budget, not to mention ad-promos costs. Critical reaction will probably vary widely.”
Many other reviewers also mentioned the budget, which was considered enormous (even though it converts to $76 million today, a laughably modest sum for such an ambitious film).
On June 25, 1981, exactly a year before it opened, Variety reported that the film was racing to complete before a directors strike. “Despite unconfirmed reports over the past several weeks of a mushrooming budget, pic will wrap June 30, five days over schedule. Considerable special effects work will then remain to be done under supervision of Douglas Trumbull.”
A few weeks later, Variety reported that Ladd Co. had picked up “Blade Runner” from the financially beleaguered Filmways.
The film earned $26 million in its summer run in 1982 — not bad, but not enough to get it into the summer’s top 10. And it was certainly not enough to make a profit (the summer box office was dominated by two films, “ET — the ExtraTerrestrial” and “Rocky 3”).
“Blade Runner” earned two Oscar nominations: for art direction (Lawrence G. Paull, David L. Snyder, with set decoration by Linda DeScenna) and visual effects (the visionary Trumbull, Richard Yuricich, David Dryer). They all went home empty-handed. But over the years, filmmakers and audiences have appreciated their work, as well as the contributions of the entire team of the Michael Deeley-produced movie, including cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, composer Vangelis, and casting directors Mike Fenton and Jane Feinberg.
In Variety‘s May 26, 2006, retrospective of the film, Diane Garrett reported that the original did not reflect the vision of the filmmakers; completion-bond guarantors took over, adding the voiceover and happy ending. There was a director’s cut in 1992, but Scott was not happy with that one, saying he was rushed. There was also an expanded international cut. In 2007, to honor the film’s 25th anniversary, there was a fourth version, billed “the Final Cut”; Scott had started working on this edition in 2000, but Warner Bros. shelved it for several years because the studio couldn’t come to terms with one of the guarantors.
There are a few links between the 1982 film and the upcoming sequel, including Harrison Ford repeating as Rick Deckard and writer Hampton Fancher (who scripted the original with David Webb Peoples, and wrote the new film with Michael Green).
Among its many lasting accomplishments, the original film introduced audiences to Philip K. Dick, a prolific writer whose novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was the inspiration for the film. Unfortunately, Dick didn’t live long enough to see the film’s eventual success. He died of a heart attack in 1982, three months before the film opened, at age 53.
But his novel, and a team of futurists and artists hired by Scott and the producers, created a world of oppressive extreme weather, law-enforcement helicopters, oversized neon signs, and robots that can out-think humans. These were exotic ideas back then. But the film is set in 2019, which means that the dystopian clock is ticking and the world of “unrelenting grimness” is just around the corner — if it’s not here already.