On June 25, 1982, moviegoers across America saw the future — and thought ”Bummer.” Despite the respective cachet of director Ridley Scott (hot off his 1979 science-fiction smash Alien) and star Harrison Ford (at the peak of his matinee-idoldom, after Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark), the debut of Blade Runner — a gorgeous, lugubrious sci-fi adventure — left audiences cold.
They weren’t the only ones. Critical reaction was decidely mixed. The New York Times called it ”muddled yet mesmerizing”; Time said that the film, ”like its setting, is a beautiful, deadly organism that devours life”; and the Los Angeles Times hissed, ”Blade crawler might be more like it.”
The much-tweaked adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? posited Ford as Rick Deckard, a detective on the hunt for renegade ”replicants” — man-made constructs all the more dangerous for their deceiving ”more human than human” appearance — in the dank, percolating urban sprawl of Los Angeles circa 2019.
According to Paul M. Sammon, author of Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, the combination of Scott’s oppressive gloom and the moral ambiguity of Ford’s character proved too heady for a Reagan-era viewership accustomed to more wholesomely wrought derring-do. ”The audience was so primed to see Indiana Jones or Han Solo, the adventurous, dashing role model, and they encounter this antihero who’s got a drinking problem and is not disinclined to shoot women in the back,” says Sammon. ”It subverted audience expectations to such a degree that they were baffled by it.”
That bafflement — and the fact that the $25 million film opened against the substantially more zeitgeist-friendly E.T. — led to a paltry opening weekend take of $6 million and an overall gross of $14 million for its initial run.
It’s only in the intervening years that, thanks to the advent of the laserdisc — and the much-ballyhooed 1992 release of Scott’s director’s cut (which dispensed with Ford’s monotone voice-over and the out-of-place happy ending) — Runner has evolved into the quintessential cult classic, as well as the most aesthetically influential sci-fi flick of modern times. Its vision of the future — represented by a technology-soaked, soul-crushing metropolis — has since been echoed in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, even Matt Groening’s animated TV dystopia Futurama.
”In some respects it’s still ahead of its time,” says Sammon. ”Being able to take a big budget, Hollywood A-list production like that and insert all these very interesting emotional and intellectual subtexts is something that we still need to see a lot more of.” Hear, hear.
Time Capsule: June 25, 1982
ON TV: M*A*S*H sewed up 19 million households, putting CBS ahead in that week’s ratings war.
IN MUSIC: Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s ode to harmony, ”Ebony and Ivory,” topped the Billboard singles chart.
IN BOOKSTORES: Jane Fonda’s Workout Book sweated it out at the top of the nonfiction best-seller list.
AND IN THE NEWS: in a case against President Nixon, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision and ruled that a President cannot be sued for any official action he takes while in office.