Watching the current kerfuffle around Prometheus reminds me of a very similar reaction to another Ridley Scott joint. Blade Runner appeared in the summer of '82 to reactions of bafflement and disbelief. Some critics adored it. Others thought it was a jumbled mess. The public ignored it and even its stunning effects took a back seat to E.T. that year at the Oscars. Like a number of films from that era, its true worth only emerged over time. Today it stands as one of the most celebrated – and studied – science fiction movies of all time: a motion picture masterpiece on the short list of Reasons Why This Medium is Worthwhile. The journey there is almost as fascinating as the film itself.
The fact that Blade Runner holds up to such scrutiny over and over again speaks to the sheer richness of its text. Scott, an obsessive detail freak, packed his retro-future with every conceivable tidbit for us to pore over. What do noodles look like in 2019? How do flying cars navigate around the earthbound models? Is that Devo wandering around in the background!? He anchors the chaos with equally potent themes, from the grand question of what it means to be human to subtler use of Oedipal imagery and the omnipresent texture of noir.
Noir, of course, informs most of Blade Runner providing an alternate but no less potent version of dystopian future to stand alongside The Road Warrior released several weeks earlier. While that film saw us collapse with a bang, here it becomes a whimper: a long slow ramble into corruption and irrelevance until only the detritus remains. Earth of 2019 resembles a functioning discard pile; humanity has largely fled for the stars, leaving the bungled and the botched behind. Every human being in Blade Runner suffers from some form of malady: Gaff's (Edward James Olmos) limp, Tyrell's (Joe Turkel) glasses, the wasting disease slowly claiming J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson). Contrast that with the renegade androids who move among them: beautiful, powerful, stalking the city like gods among the ruins and all but unstoppable in their glory. Their only flaw is their temporary nature, something they desperately hope to change. The Powers That Be can't allow that to happen.
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the "blade runner" assigned to track them down, evinces the typical qualities of a noir detective. But he also follows the same pattern as many of Scott's male heroes: a good man working for a corrupt system that doesn't deserve his loyalty. Small wonder, then, that he questions his appointed role as executioner… and eventually his very humanity. Like Prometheus, Blade Runner encompasses a search for wisdom, with Deckard seeking justification for his deeds as much as a viable target. And like Prometheus, such wisdom brings little benefit to those who finally find it.
Musings like that begin anew each time we watch the movie. Each screening produces a slightly different reaction; each time we see something we hadn't discovered before. Such efforts require care and attention to fully understand, an impossibility in the first-weekend-uber-alles environment in which most blockbusters must operate. The original theatrical version suffered from excessive studio interference, notably with the hideous voice-over and tacked-on "happy ending" that basically undid the remainder of the film. Burdened by these handicaps and swimming resolutely against the prevailing zeitgeist, it's small wonder that it struggled for relevance at first.
But time heals all wounds as they say, and the film found its true status even before the release of the director's cut in 1992. Like The Road Warrior, its influence is self-evident; William Gibson wrote concurrently with its development and it can be counted (along with Gibson's novel Neuromancer) as one of the progenitors of cyberpunk. The analysis and criticism associated with it easily dwarf the film itself, and polls often cite it as second only to Citizen Kane in formal academic studies. All this from a movie that basically plugs a hard-boiled detective into a high-tech future. Its brilliance sneaks up on you, and takes multiple screenings to spot. Scott has that figured out from the start; it took the rest of us years to come to the same conclusion.