This article is part of Humanity and the Machine, our exploration of the cinematic interactions between humans and self-aware machines.
No conversation about artificial intelligence in movies is complete without the inclusion of Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic, Blade Runner. It’s a character-driven, sci-fi/noir about a detective tasked with locating and “retiring” replicants ‐ genetically engineered humanoids created to work as slave labor or serve as entertainment ‐ who’ve violently rebelled against their human masters in a bid for freedom. Rather than simply view the replicants as monsters the film embraces the idea that they’re perhaps even more human than humans.
The film has seen a handful of iterations (theatrical, director’s cut), but it’s the cleverly named “Final Cut” that Scott recorded a commentary track for in 2007. Keep reading to see what I heard on Scott’s commentary track for Blade Runner.
Blade Runner (1982)
Commentator: Ridley Scott (director)
1. It was Scott’s choice to have the opening credits be simply text against a black screen. “I knew my opening shot would be so spectacular,” he says, “that I didn’t want the titles to upstage them in any form.”
2. “Anyone saying that I was forced to do voice-over [in the theatrical cut], that’s rubbish, I wasn’t,” he says, before pointing out that the inclusion of Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) voice-over was something he initiated in order to clear up any confusion for viewers. Apparently Ford was equally unhappy with the voice-over, and Scott thinks it’s clear in his line delivery. He’s obviously pleased that it’s been removed from this cut.
3. The early eyeball shot was meant as a minor ode to George Orwell’s 1984 and the idea of “Big Brother.”
4. The film was budgeted around $20 million ‐ “marginally expensive” ‐ but a bargain compared to some other films made at the time that cost closer to $40m. Granted, later in the commentary he references the budget as $25m.
5. Scott is no fan of filming on studio back-lots although he acknowledges the convenience of having access to anything you might need. “The scale never seems to be quite right,” he says, “they all seem to look a little bit small, or a little bit dinky, or not tall enough.” He was ultimately given an ultimatum to “do it there or don’t do it at all” and credits Syd Mead’s design help with making it work. The same “street” was used for multiple scenes throughout the film.
6. People attempted to dissuade Scott from shooting at the Bradbury Building as it had become a “cliche” after being used in numerous television shows, but he was having none of that.
7. Scott called Douglas Trumbull to invite him onto the project, but the effects supervisor initially declined as he was busy with his own directorial effort (Brainstorm). Trumbull quickly relented when Scott showed his power by having Natalie Wood killed. That’s probably not true, but I just wanted to see if you’re still paying attention.
8. He scoffs at attempts to shoehorn the film into a metaphor for ideas like apartheid. “It’s silly. This is science fiction. This is a futuristic fiction which could be possible.”
9. Scott sees a fairly linear path towards artificial intelligence and sums it up thusly. “If you feed enough information into a computer then the romantic notion is at what moment does a computer start to have his own feelings? It’s a bit like saying to play chess you gotta have intuition, right, now computers don’t have intuition, but if you packed in all the conceivable moves the computer can make haven’t you also built in inadvertently by cross-collateralization and accident intuition. If you have intuition then that means you got feelings, so that means the computer might get angry.”
10. The bathroom scene where Deckard finds the scale was a pick-up shot filmed back at the studio on a stage previously used for Star Wars, and its inclusion was for a specific purpose. “The complaint, if there was a formal complaint, was that we didn’t see Deckard do much detective work.” Scott doesn’t agree with the complaint, but there you go. Ford wasn’t available for the re-shoot, so Scott had Vic Armstrong double the actor for the scene. “Harrison’s never said anything to this day,” he says, laughing.
11. Immediately following the scene above is a sequence where Deckard and Gaff (Edward James Olmos) look through a bedroom. It was originally supposed to feature a Murphy bed folded up into the wall that when pulled down revealed a replicant hiding within who busts out to start a “massive punch-up.” It was axed for budgetary reasons.
12. Scott’s a “realist” and hates when a horror/sci-fi film goes too far past a believable point. “Eh, too much magic,” he says.
13. Costume designer Charles Knode found a trove of Greta Garbo’s coats and brought them to Scott for Rachael’s (Sean Young) use.
14. The photo that Deckard scans into his computer and then explores in 3D is still in Scott’s possession. He has it framed.
15. “This film was honestly resurrected by the advent of MTV,” he says. He began noticing numerous videos inspired by the film’s look and “an evolution that started to happen with filmmakers and rock n roll bands.”
16. He wanted horizontal lights shining in through the windows during the scene where J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) head up to his apartment, and when asked why he gave the following response. “Do you want me to be logical about it? Because we have air traffic in the city and because we have tall buildings, very tall buildings, and there’s some kind of governor governing systems that, let’s say, don’t allow a car to crash. All the buildings have beacons on them, and they spin onto the building opposite.” He says it’s annoying having to describe and justify things when he knows “on film it’s going to be beautiful, and I’m going to put a sound on it. A sound for light. They say ‘a sound for light?’ and I say yes, I want a sound for light.”
17. He wonders if it’s melodramatic to have Deckard be a replicant. “At the time it’s like, you know it’s okay if he is and it’s okay if he isn’t,” he says. “I was figured in the back of my mind that the natural choice would be that he’s a replicant, particularly if there was going to be a sequel.” He kind of chuckles here before adding “the sequel will never be.”
18. Scott is pretty confident that Blade Runner was the first of its kind stating that he looked at “all the other” urban-set sci-fi films and they just weren’t very good. “They either suffered from a lack of budget or a lack of imagination or a lack of reality.”
19. Looking towards future tech, Scott feels pretty confident that video communication won’t involve holograms. “It’s silly.”
20. Zhora’s (Joanna Cassidy) introduction at the dance club originally featured “a very exotic mud dance, where it was going to be like mud animation, so it was really truly sinister, and would evolve into a female and then a snake entwined with a female, and it would be pretty organic, um, and then revealing that it was all one big act. We couldn’t do that so instead it was meeting here around the back near the dressing rooms, but I think it works very well.” So let’s all just picture that for a moment.
21. The word “replicant” originally came from screenwriter David Webb Peoples’ daughter who was studying genetics and said these characters couldn’t really be called androids.
22. Ford wanted Deckard to order a Tsingtao beer after killing Zhora, but Scott had never heard of the brand. He drinks it now though. Ford also suggested the bit where he takes a drink after his fight with Leon (Brion James) and blood drips back into the shot glass. This is a fun anecdote, but the best part of it is hearing Scott do a Ford impression. Finally, Ford also suggested the bit where he sits up from the couch and barely catches the liquor bottle before it spills. So yeah, if you want Ford to improvise, be sure to write some scenes featuring alcohol for him.
23. “I found as I was evolving on this that actually this story was pretty purple, and was not exactly a Dracula movie, but it was as purple as a Dracula movie.” This is Scott’s way of saying the movie is theatrical without being campy. Pretty sure that’s what he means anyway.
24. The Deckard/Rachael make-out session is the film’s least successful scene per Scott, and he holds himself responsible. There wasn’t enough dialogue to flesh out the scene, and “he was being a stern master until finally she gets it and says ‘put your hands on me’ which is the invitation to the waltz.” He recalls both actors feeling uneasy about it, and he respects that as he thinks “love scenes are totally superfluous. They’re not justified.” The biggest takeaway here is that Scott refers to sex as “the waltz.”
25. For the production design of J.F. Sebastian’s apartment Scott suggested a feel similar to Miss Havisham’s room in David Lean’s Great Expectations. Their reply to him was “Who the hell is Miss Havisham?”
26. Scott first noticed Joe Turkel (who plays Dr. Eldon Tyrell) in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and thought the actor’s face displayed “a waxen quality to his skin, almost like polished ivory.” The best part of this recollection is hearing Scott explain the barroom scene in The Shining by saying “I guess they were ghosts of a bygone era.”
27. An early version of the scene where Roy (Rutger Hauer) kills Tyrell featured him crushing the man’s head only to realize the gooey contents weren’t human. The “real” Tyrell is in the interior of the pyramid-shaped headquarters ensconced in a gigantic sarcophagus in cryogenic stasis.
28. Scott is no fan of night shoots. “Everyone gets exhausted after lunch which is one o’clock in the morning, and I think after one o’clock in the morning I don’t care who it is, you get 40%. Everyone is going down.”
29. He points out a detail during the end sequence with Deckard hanging from a building that I’ve never noticed in my numerous watches of the film. Just as Deckard loses his grip he spits at Roy in a final act of bravado, and it’s that action, that refusal to beg for his life, that leads Roy to save his life.
30. Regarding whether or not Deckard is a replicant, Scott is okay with either interpretation, but he himself believes the answer to be yes. He says the expression on Deckard’s face after noticing the origami unicorn outside his apartment door is confirmation. Gaff was there, the unicorn is from Deckard’s dreams, and Gaff would have had access to Deckard’s file which would probably include mention of the unicorn dream implant. I guess we’ll find out for sure in the sequel…
Best in Commentary
- “A director never does have enough money to do a film.”
- “Your job as director is to dictate what you want.”
- “We got to tread very carefully how we talk about this ‐ the idea of replication of beautiful females and their various uses.”
- “Us witnessing a replicant becoming as human as a human or not more human than a human but as human as a human…”
- “As you earn the right, you explain less. It’s not conceited, it’s a fact.”
- “It was hard making this movie. As Harrison said, it was a bitch. If it was a bitch for him, it was really a bitch for me.”
- “One thing you know for sure is you don’t know anything.”
- “I haven’t got the patience for chess.”
Blade Runner is a fantastic goddamn film, and it’s one of the few that retains its beauty even with the volume turned down and a British dude rambling on about all manner of topics. Scott spends little time discussing the specifics of the actual scenes onscreen, instead using them as jumping-off points to discuss bigger aspects of the film and its production. There are a couple silent gaps, but for the most part Scott talks throughout and manages a consistent mix of entertainment and information.