Is Blade Runner an untouchable sci-fi classic and one of the greatest movies ever made, or style over substance personified and, at best, wildly overrated? You’re going to hear a lot of people claiming the latter in the coming weeks, but we’re here to tell you that’s not quite right.
With Blade Runner 2049 impending, films fans of all creeds are revisiting Ridley Scott’s tech-noir landmark in preparation for Denis Villeneuve’s sequel (and to try and settle if Deckard really is a replicant). It is, after all, a sci-fi classic. And yet unlike fellow all-timers, the wider cultural sphere has an odd relationship with the loose Phillip K. Dick adaptation; whereas everybody loves Star Wars and the only bad word most have to say about 2001: A Space Odyssey is how overwhelming it is, this is the seminal movie that some people, frankly, don’t like.
It’s not our place (or anyone’s) to say you’re wrong in liking/disliking a film but we would say that to dismiss Blade Runner as overrated misses so much of what makes it a societal touchstone as much as a cinematic one. Here’s why you shouldn’t call Blade Runner the “O-word”.
Blade Runner Was Never Meant To Be A “Classic”
To really address being overrated, we first need to make clear how Blade Runner is rated in the first place. And, of course, it’s very high. 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, 89 on Metacritic, strong ranking in the IMDb 250 and, perhaps most monolithically, #69 in the latest Sight & Sound Top 250, a poll of critics and filmmakers that is widely regarded as the closest we can get to an objective list of greatness. But it didn’t start out this way.
The production of Blade Runner was an absolute nightmare, with methodical and fastidious director Ridley Scott clashing with the money men throughout filming (he was weeks behind after the first days) and, despite attempts to produce a more middle ground film (we’ll come back to that), for a while it looked like all that blood, sweat, tears and t-shirts were for nothing. It got mixed reviews from critics and even less positive attention from audiences, making back $33M from a $28M budget (which was vastly inflated from the original $15M ballpark). Much of this is chalked up to the film hitting weeks after E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and its frank dystopia clashing with the human optimism of Spielberg (something that likewise kneecapped John Carpenter’s The Thing), although it’s as much simply being too ahead of its time. The short of this, though, is that the film has an ignominious original theatrical release.
It was only when it arrived on VHS that reputation started to the shift and, over the 1980s, people began to see Scott’s vision for what it was. Re-screenings became regular events in LA and at conventions, slowly building up its myth. Eventually, the director was able to give a more refined take with the 1992 Director’s Cut (albeit done via notes while he finished Thelma and Louise), and from there the movie only grew in prestige. It became a classic over a period of decades, building slowly but surely.
Blade Runner Was Underrated
Now, cult classics aren’t uncommon – indeed, it would be a disaster if a movie’s initial reaction had to be its enduring legacy – especially in this early home video era (indeed, fellow E.T. victim The Thing thrived in a similar way), and the cultural segue into the internet sees many gaining unexpectedly large footprints, but Blade Runner‘s something different. It’s grander, as a movie and where it went. It’s the cult classic, the best example of a movie that went from underground hit to mainstream all-timer.
Plainly, it was originally underrated – and, even after reevaluation, it’s not what a film of its stature traditionally is. Understanding this isn’t essential to appreciating the movie itself, but is in grasping its reputation. By the nature of the development, there’s a cultural cap on it; whereas the New Hollywood films of a decade before have an immense respect across all sectors, Blade Runner skewed into a specific generation. It’s reductive to go so broad, but its status as a sci-fi classic came from a different voice to those heralding the likes of Close Encounters or Star Wars. Regarded as something more universal than it is can only lead to misunderstanding.
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