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'Blade Runner' created a provocative view of the future

It was a tension-filled shoot. The rising star and the director didn't get along.

When the test screenings were disastrous the producers added a voiceover narration, hoping to make the story comprehensible to baffled audiences.

It was a flop when it opened in theaters on June 25, 1982.

Yet 25 years later "Blade Runner" is on many lists of the top sci-fi movies of all time.

It has become a cult favorite of hundreds of thousands of young adults who weren't old enough to see the R-rated movie when it played commercially but have watched it repeatedly on home video.

It's credited with ushering in the era of cyberpunk and creating a vision of a dystopian future that writers, filmmakers and comic book artists have been borrowing from ever since. And there are plans to release a new version in theaters this fall, along with a boxed DVD set.

"It's a worldwide phenomenon - that's what so remarkable," said Rutger Hauer, the Dutch actor who starred in the film opposite Harrison Ford and just published a memoir, "All These Moments," which devotes several chapters to the movie. "It works in Japan, Argentina, Russia ... anywhere you go where people watch movies, they know `Blade Runner.' "

"It's definitely influenced my work as an artist," said Joplin, Mo., resident Jeremy Haun, who has drawn Captain America and other Marvel superheroes. "I really like the look and feel of `Blade Runner's' cyberpunk world. It's the perfect meld of sci-fi and crime noir, and the film's use of camera angles and atmosphere still stand out in my mind and creep into my work."

Kansas City-based Federal Express employee Jason Arnold was equally impressed.

"When I first saw it as a kid, there was a lot I didn't understand," he said. "But the more you watch, the more you pick up on."

Not everybody is crazy about the film. Film critic Roger Ebert has written of "Blade Runner": "It looks fabulous, it uses special effects to create a new world of its own, but it is thin in its human story."

But even those who think "Blade Runner" doesn't quite work as drama admit it's a film crammed with astonishing visuals and provocative ideas.

"Blade Runner" is loosely based on "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," a novel by science fiction legend Philip K. Dick (1928-1982). Though Dick was only moderately successful in his lifetime, his work is now available in any bookstore and has inspired films such as "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Paycheck," "A Scanner Darkly" and "Next."

Set in Los Angeles in 2019, the film features Ford as Deckard, a "blade runner" who tracks down and "retires" renegade replicants, artificial humans created as slave labor for dangerous off-world colonies.

"Born" as adults, replicants have superhuman strength and a lifespan of just four years. Some are implanted with false memories of childhood. All are prohibited from returning to Earth.

Now five of these creatures have murdered their human keepers, hijacked a rocket and splashed down near Los Angeles. Deckard, a hard-drinking, angst-riddled sleuth in the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe mold, is brought out of retirement to track them down.

Directing "Blade Runner" was Ridley Scott, who at the time had completed two feature films in Europe ("The Duellists" and "Alien") after a successful career in TV commercials. A visual genius, Scott wasn't an actor's director. He had, he admitted years later, "no time for explanations and stroking."

Scott would become one of the industry's most powerful filmmakers, nominated for three directing Oscars ("Black Hawk Down," "Gladiator," "Thelma & Louise"). But as a Hollywood newcomer he fought with his American crew to realize his vision. This left little time for working with actors, resulting in what may be the most colorless performance of Ford's career.

Moreover, Scott insisted on filming in a haze of atmospheric smoke that left actors gagging and forced crew members to work in surgical masks.

The film went over schedule and over budget.

It was not a happy set.

Yet in a recent phone conversation Hauer said it was the high point of his career.

"It's true that lots of people on the set were unhappy, they were breathing smoke and we had a director not totally at ease with handling actors," said Hauer, who played Roy Batty, the leader of the renegade replicants.

"But I had a ball, basically. I know that it was a rough moviemaking experience. That happens sometimes. But I had a pretty good understanding of what Ridley wanted from me. We got along well ... perhaps it was our shared European background."

Ford, on the other hand, reportedly has rarely spoken to Scott in ensuing years and declines to be interviewed about "Blade Runner."

The first few minutes of "Blade Runner" establish an atmosphere unlike any other movie. It begins with the camera flying over Los Angeles in 2019. Huge smokestacks vent orange balls of flame into a black sky thick with pouring rain. Every now and then a "spinner," an airborne car, zips between buildings rising 50 and 60 stories, thousands of illuminated windows twinkling like stars.

Far below the plebes (the majority of them Asians) in rain slickers and glowing umbrellas scurry through crowded wet streets lit by neon signs. Overhead float huge blimplike aircraft fitted with gigantic TV screens across which flicker a never-ending stream of commercials. Loudspeakers blare out advertising slogans that make conversations almost impossible.

All this was done with pre-computer technology by special effects master Douglas Trumbull ("2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"). The street scenes were shot on the old New York set on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank; production designer Lawrence G. Paull employed existing buildings, retrofitting them with futuristic accouterments to suggest a new society built on the foundations of an old one.

The film's dark visual palette (most scenes take place at night) was reflected in "Blade Runner's" overall style. Mimicking film noir, the movie was filled with shadows, surly cops and sinister strangers.

Deckard's love interest - a woman named Rachael who because of false memories doesn't realize that she is herself a replicant - was played by film newcomer Sean Young, sporting a hairdo and broad-shouldered wardrobe right out of the 1940s.

All this gave "Blade Runner" a unique look and feel. But Deckard's tracking down and systematic elimination of the fugitive replicants (played by Hauer, Joanna Cassidy, Daryl Hannah and Brion James) is most important, according to the film's fans, for the way it raises existential questions.

"The movie can be as deep - or as superficial - as you like," said Haun, who wore out his original VHS copy of the film. "It can simply be a beautiful movie with great action scenes. But the more you see it, the more you get into the movie's philosophy. Lots of layers. This movie has stamina."

For example: What does it mean to be human? Are the replicants any less human for having been manufactured? Do they have souls? When Roy Batty's internal batteries finally run dry, he releases the dove he has been stroking, and the bird soars upward, a soul ascending.

Batty also serves as a Christ figure. Late in the movie he strips down to shorts to pursue Deckard, and when his limbs go numb a sign that his biological clock is running down - he pierces his palm with a nail, hoping the pain will shock his body into behaving.

The replicants are desperate to confront Tyrell, the inventor/industrialist whose corporation manufactured them. In this they echo mankind's desire to know, understand and perhaps defy God.

Then there's the film's vision of the future, an ecological nightmare where weather patterns have been disrupted and many species are extinct (the wealthy buy artificial animals as pets). In the social pecking order of 2019, the poor scuttle about at ground level while the privileged look down from high rises. Corporations have as much or more power than the government.

All this makes the movie thematically rich but doesn't really make it satisfying, at least according to detractors like "Entertainment Tonight" film critic and historian Leonard Maltin.

"This film has never done it for me," Maltin said. "Watching it, I never feel emotionally engaged. I admire the production design. And it raises provocative thoughts. But in the end I just find it muddled."

One man's muddle, though, is another's complexity.

"I've seen `Blade Runner' 20 times and each time it's a different movie," said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University "It's different because I've changed. I've grown older, picked up more information and experiences. It's a new movie every time."

The film's genius, Thompson said, is that it doesn't provide any answers.

"It's like a great first draft of a thesis. It drops all of these complex time bombs, sets up thematic landmines. And then it never bothers to work them all out. The brilliance of the movie is that it never tries too hard to make sense. That's why it's perpetually renewable."

Not even the people who made the movie agree on its meaning. Hauer, for instance, always has believed that his often-murderous character is the film's true hero. He calls Deckard "a dumb character. He's not the hero. He's the bad guy."

In fact, a controversy has long raged among the faithful over whether Ford's Deckard is, unbeknownst to himself, a replicant. The film drops several tantalizing clues, such as the very old but seemingly unrelated "family" photos that decorate Deckard's piano and the mocking tone of the eccentric police officer Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who intimates he knows secrets about Deckard that even Deckard doesn't possess.

Finally, there's the question of which "Blade Runner" you're talking about.

The version that opened in theaters in `82 had been taken away from Scott by his producers after the test screenings. They had Ford record a hastily written cynical tough-guy narration, hoping it would make the dark story more accessible.

Those present at the recording session later claimed that Ford hated the idea and deliberately gave a lousy reading, hoping the narration would never be used. In recent years the actor has denied that, saying he did the best he could.

Also tacked on was a "happy" ending in which Deckard and Rachael drive off through a gorgeous natural landscape, determined to live whatever time they have away from the crush of civilization.

Scott was bitterly disappointed with that tampering and in 1992 brought out a "director's cut" version that eliminated the narration and hopeful ending and restored some other elements. But even that was a rush job that didn't fully realize his vision for the film, the director has said.

For that we'll have to wait until fall. Scott is completing work on a definitive cut of "Blade Runner" that will play in theaters in September and then be released as part of an elaborate DVD boxed set.

A spokesman for Warner Home Video declined to comment on the project, except to say that an announcement would be made this summer.

But Hauer said the set will contain at least three versions of the film - theatrical, director's cut and the newest version - and that more than a year ago he was interviewed for the special features to be included in the package.

Thompson, for one, doesn't think there ever will be a definitive version of the movie.

"`Blade Runner' was for Generation X what '2001: A Space Odyssey' was for the baby boomers," Thompson said. "It's perfect fodder for the age of the Internet, a movie open to infinite interpretations."