Ridley Scott’s masterpiece just turned 35. Let’s look at some of the cool movies it has inspired in that time.
It’s no exaggeration or overstatement to say that Ridley Scott‘s 1982 landmark Blade Runner is one of the most important films of all time. Its imprint is forever etched in science fiction entertainment, and you’d be hard pressed to find many films within the genre which don’t share some similarities with it. Based on the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by iconic sci-fi author Philip K. Dick and itself influenced by a range of cinema, literature, and art from all around the world, including Fritz Lang’s trailblazing 1927 silent film, Metropolis, Scott’s film is still a unique marvel like no other. As much inspired by film noir as science fiction, the film gave birth to the Tech-Noir sub-genre as we know it today, and its depiction of a gloomy 2019 Los Angeles has served as the template of what the architecture of future cities might look like, at least in our imaginations.
Blade Runner has also provided audiences with a buffet of food for thought since its release, as it explores complex ideas like artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation along with philosophical and existential themes that are profoundly human and open to a myriad of interpretations. Whether viewing the film in its Theatrical, Director’s or Final Cut, you’re going to be treated to a special cinematic experience.
To commemorate the film recently turning 35, I’ve selected a handful of sci-fi movies where Blade Runner‘s influence is visible throughout. Of course, a mere five films is in no way a reflection of the overall impact Scott’s movie has had on the genre and beyond, but I’ve chosen selections I feel are each worthy of discussion in their own way. Please note that I left out other movies based on Dick’s writing because they’re too obvious, and the author has been just as influential as Scott’s film on the science fiction genre as a whole.
Before Denis Villeneuve stepped up to bring Blade Runner the official sequel the fans have been anticipating for decades, we got Soldier, a spin-off of sorts directed by popcorn auteur Paul W.S. Anderson. Penned by Blade Runner co-scribe David Webb Peoples, he dubbed the film a “sidequel’’ and “spiritual successor,” as it takes place in the same universe as Scott’s masterwork. Evidence which highlights this includes a Spinner vehicle that can be seen lying in some wreckage, as well as a couple of subtle references to the battles in the Shoulder of Orion and Tannhauser Gate.
Soldier stars Kurt Russell as Sgt. Todd 3465, a man selected at birth to become a genetically engineered emotionless killing machine. After 40 years of service, he is considered obsolete by his commanders and sent to the scrap colony Arcadia 234 to rot away. However, upon arrival he is rescued by some friendly dwellers and sets about building his new life for himself. When his new home planet is invaded by the newer, seemingly flawless breed of soldiers that replaced his generation, Todd steps up to show the young bucks that there’s still some bite left in the old dog.
On the DVD commentary track, Anderson is open about the influence Blade Runner had on the project. “I always saw the movies as existing in the same universe, so if Kurt’s character ever went to Earth, he’d encounter Harrison Ford down there.” He continues: “Blade Runner is about the machine that becomes as human as it possibly can be, while this movie is about a man who becomes as machine-like as the military can make him. So, in a way, they’re both looking for their humanity.”
Peoples claims that the soldiers in this movie are of the same engineered life forms seen in Blade Runner, but only a keen eye would spot the connections. Blade Runner continues to be dissected by academics to this very day, and the film’s many layers have been picked apart and studied by everyone from film scholars to philosophers. There have been countless essays and books written on its themes and multiple interpretations formed as a result of its creation. Soldier, on the other hand, is a formulaic ‘90s action vehicle for Russell that sees mindless mayhem unfold on a futuristic garbage-dump planet. Upon its release, critical consensus and box office receipts suggested that the movie itself belonged in such a place. It was a flop, lost like tears in the rain.
Soldier is an unapproved and thoroughly entertaining spin-off to Blade Runner that has more in common with the various fan fiction stories Scott’s film has inspired rather than the movie itself. Soldier is a serviceable pulpy alternative to the thoughtful musings of its “predecessor,” with the A.V. Club perfectly describing it as “inadvertent B-movie poetry.” And that’s all it needs to be. I’ve included this because it’s rarely mentioned ever, and it deserves some mild appreciation at least.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
A lot of Japanese cyberpunk anime released in the late ‘80s and early-to-mid ‘90s owes a considerable debt to Blade Runner. At times it wasn’t even subtle. Notable examples include A.D. Police Files, a three-episode miniseries about a special police unit trained to deal with androids that go nuts, and Bubblegum Crisis, which tells the story of a female mercenary team whose mission is to destroy robots living in our society. For those with more macabre sensibilities, 1987s Wicked City is an excellent cyberpunk/neo-noir horror crossover which replaces the Replicants with demons in a city that’s heavily inspired by Scott’s imagining of Los Angeles in the year 2019. The list could on for days, but for now, we’ll focus on one of the better ones: Ghost in the Shell.
Based on the manga series of the same name written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow, Ghost in the Shell follows a cyborg policewoman and her partner as they hunt a mysterious and powerful cyber-criminal who goes by the alias, Puppet Master — he is “a living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information.” As we’ve discovered in Blade Runner, such entities are frowned upon.
Ghost in the Shell explores similar themes as Blade Runner, like the idea of feeling disenchanted and isolated in a world where technology has rapidly advanced to the point where it can ruin lives. At the same time, the film presents the idea that technology also offers humanity an opportunity to evolve and expand beyond our current capabilities. By looking at the pros and the cons, the film’s message isn’t so clear cut and it’s up to the viewers to form their own opinion.
Last year, the anime’s director, Mamoru Oshii, acknowledged the influence of Blade Runner in an interview with the LA Times. “Any film set in a near-future world is influenced to some degree by Blade Runner, but I did my best to make [Ghost in the Shell] different from it.”
The recent Hollywood reboot also contains elements of Blade Runner, but you should check out the anime before you ever go near that. It’s not the best introduction to this universe after all.
Strange Days (1995)
How Strange Days is not more well-known and celebrated is beyond me. Maybe it’s just been overshadowed by the other films that its creators, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, are now synonymous with. It’s also very much a product of its time, having been inspired by a series of cultural events of the ’90s like the LA riots, the Lorena Bobbitt trial, the Rodney King incident, and the O.J. Simpson trial. Those events set off a chain of anarchic events, and if there’s a spirit which permeates throughout Strange Days it’s anarchy and the looming collapse of mankind. They only make films like this when it feels like the world is going to hell in a hand basket.
Set in the year 1999, Strange Days tells the story of Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), an ex-cop who now sells data discs containing recorded memories and emotions, which allow people to momentarily live out their most personal and depraved fantasies. But it all goes downhill when he receives a disc containing the memories of a murderer killing a prostitute, pulling him into a seedy underbelly. If he’s going to survive, then he needs to follow his old cop instincts and get to the bottom of the case before it’s too late.
Strange Days is a noir detective story set in a future LA, not too dissimilar from the movie which inspired all of the films on this list. It tackles themes like rape, murder, racism, and voyeurism, but like Blade Runner, there is also a great emphasis placed on the negative effects of technology, as it’s the root cause of Nero’s disturbing journey. He’s also a flogger of fantasies, temporarily removed from reality, which further suggests that mankind is lost in a world where technology has advanced to the detriment of society. The addiction analogy comparing technology and drugs isn’t subtle either.
The Blade Runner comparisons are also unavoidable given the nature of Nero who, like Deckard before him, is an ex-cop who is forced to return to his old ways against his better judgement. In her book “The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor,” author Deborah Jermun notes the similarities. “Lenny and Deckard could almost be neighbors; one an ex-cop, one semi-retired from LAPD; both holed up in the same city; both caught up in detective stories which will make them question what they see and what they remember.” Jermin also highlights how Jay Cocks, the co-writer of Strange Days, once came close to optioning the novel by Philip K. Dick on which Blade Runner is based.
The Blade Runner influence is definitely strong with this one, but Strange Days is still a great flick with plenty of original ideas and deserves more recognition outside its circle of loyal cult enthusiasts.
In Andrew Niccol’s stunning debut Gattaca, society is split into two tiers: the Valids and In-Valids. The former, like the Replicants in Blade Runner, are enhanced beings, while the latter are regular people born through natural conception. The Valids are the cream of the crop and get all the best jobs and opportunities, while the In-Valids are relegated to the most basic of menial tasks. That is until one of them finds a way to pose as one of the genetically superior citizens.
Gattaca tells the story of Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), a man who assumes the identity of a Valid through a meticulous daily routine in order to work at a top-level company that will allow him to pursue his dream of space travel. For awhile, he gets to go about his days conning the system, but when one of his colleagues is murdered, he arouses the suspicions of a detective determined to get to the bottom of the incident.
Like Blade Runner, Gattaca explores themes pertaining to genetic manipulation and cloning. Both movies take place in futures where mankind is in danger of losing its humanity as a result of engineering superior beings, even though they’re placed on opposite ends of the spectrum. In Blade Runner, the Replicants are living in the shadows and being hunted, while in Gattaca the Valids are the ruling class.
Another similarity between both films is how they draw upon bygone eras of cinema to present their visions of the future. Blade Runner’s style was inspired by hard-boiled detective noir films of the 1940s, and the style and themes of those films are a heavy presence throughout. Deckard is not unlike the gritty and paranoid protagonists actors like Robert Mitchum portrayed in films like Out of This World. Meanwhile, Gattaca’s influences also harken back to 1950s Hollywood to frame its future, where bright colors give off the impression of a warm, hopeful utopia. In Blade Runner, the idea of disillusioned hope is projected in the form of billboards advertising off-world colonies which haunt the dark cityscapes like unattainable dreams.
Interestingly, Gattaca has been heralded by real-world scientists as a legitimate warning about the dangers of genetic manipulation. Writing in Scientific American in 2013, author Ferris Jabr states, “The Freemans are characters in the science fiction film Gattaca, which explores liberal eugenics as an unintended consequence of certain technologies meant to assist human reproduction. Although Antonio and Marie do not exist outside the movie’s imaginary universe, their real-life counterparts could be walking among us sooner than we think—and, in a sense, they already are.” In 2015, the film’s predictions of the future edged closer to reality when news of the world’s first genetic modification of human embryos was reported.
While the advancement of genetic engineering is foretold more realistically in Gattaca, the warning signs are visible in Blade Runner. Is it only a matter of time before both films turn out to be frightening prophecies?
Gattaca is an intelligent sci-fi film that deserves to be hailed alongside Blade Runner as a thought-provoking masterpiece in its own right. But with similar themes and the imitation of a past cinematic style to represent the future, the parallels between both films are hard to miss. And to cap it all off, like Scott’s film, Gattaca was met with initial disinterest only to become a beloved cult classic.
Dark City (1998)
Blade Runner has accomplished many things in its 35 years of existence, but one of the film’s most noteworthy achievements is how it envisioned the future city. In turn, the film has inspired the gloomy backdrops of many science fiction stories, spread across a litany of entertainment mediums. The dark, rain-soaked metropolis is a combination of the fantastical and the familiar, with influences plucked from the past, present and future. For every flying car or emblazoned commercial billboard, the past is still ever present. As the Guardian’s Alex von Tunzelman notes, “Blade Runner drags the dark, lonely, dirty Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler and film noir into a darker, lonelier and dirtier future. It’s a triumph of production design; imitated constantly, but never surpassed.’’ Amen to that.
Blade Runner is undoubtedly the foundation on which most metropolitan landscapes of the future were shaped post-1982, but the setting for Dark City is a haunting, oppressive marvel. And along with being a significant character in its own right, this nightmarish old town just so happens to boast some of the coolest architecture you’re ever likely to see in a piece of cinema, inspired by everything from the German Expressionism and noir which informed Blade Runner, to Victorian Gothic streets Jack the Ripper would happily have stalked during his prime. Roger Ebert, who hailed it as his favorite film of 1998, stated, “Like Blade Runner it imagines a city of the future. But while Blade Runner extended existing trends, Dark City leaps into the unknown.”
When describing the setting in a 1997 interview with Cinefantastique, the film’s production manager Patrick Tatopolous said, “The movie takes place everywhere, and it takes place nowhere. It’s a city built of pieces of cities. A corner from one place, another from some place else. So, you don’t really know where you are. A piece will look like a street in London, but a portion of the architecture looks like New York, but the bottom of the architecture looks again like a European city. You’re there, but you don’t know where you are. It’s like every time you travel, you’ll be lost.”
Directed and co-written by Alex Proyas, the story takes place in a world permanently entrenched in darkness and follows the amnesiac John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) as he tries to piece his past back together in an effort to clear his name in association with a series of murders. As his investigation progresses, he uncovers an underworld controlled by a group of ghostly alien beings known as The Strangers who possess the ability to alter memories, time, and the surrounding reality.
Dark City is also reminiscent of Blade Runner through its ability to weave multiple genres all at once. Both films utilize Tech-Noir aesthetics to perfection, and like Blade Runner, Dark City is a tale rooted in philosophical pondering and existentialism. Proyas’s film has been interpreted as an examination of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, as Murdoch’s journey is a quest for knowledge which culminates in the sun rising when he finds his answers. Additionally, the film also investigates the idea of Last Thursdayism which argues that the universe was created last Furthermore. To compare it to Blade Runner once again, Dark City explores mankind’s relationship with itself, in a world where humanity has been altered.
Dark City has been the subject of much dissection through the years, from film and scholarly study to interesting fan theories (this one on the gender politics is very interesting) and beyond. However, regardless of how unique and wonderful it is as its own entity, the Blade Runner comparisons are plentiful. But with Dark City, you get the impression they set out to make something just as mesmerizing, and you wouldn’t be wrong for saying this was accomplished with aplomb.